3. The Goodness of God
Mo, one of the inmates in a maximum security prison where I conducted a seminar, was a very substantial fellow. While Mo did not quite meet the requirements of a sumo wrestler, he came close enough to command a great deal of respect. For all of his size and strength, he had lost virtually all of his front teeth. When Mo volunteered to provide special music for the seminar, my friend Dick Plowman, a former member of our church and prison ministry colleague, introduced Mo to the audience: “Now, let’s see, what number is Mo going to sing for us? Right! Anything he wants!”
Here was a man of great strength, a man most inmates would not wish to challenge or offend. Because of his strength, he could do anything he wanted within the limits of the prison system. The power and raw physical strength of an evil man is a frightening reality. The power of a good man is a comfort. But the other attributes a man possesses determines how his power is viewed.
In and of itself, God’s power is not nearly as comforting as when seen in light of several of His other attributes. Two of these attributes are the “goodness” of God and the “wisdom” of God. The God who is all-powerful is the same God who is good and wise; God’s power becomes a source of great comfort and encourage-ment to the Christian. This lesson considers the attribute of God’s goodness, and our following lesson will study the attribute of God’s wisdom. A brief review of some important truths about the goodness of God should help to show us the importance of studying God’s goodness.
1 Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His lovingkindness is everlasting (Psalms 107:1).
19 How great is Thy goodness, which Thou hast stored up for those who fear Thee, which Thou hast wrought for those who take refuge in Thee, before the sons of men! (Psalms 31:19).
5 Afterward the sons of Israel will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king; and they will come trembling to the LORD and to His goodness in the last days (Hosea 3:5).
The goodness of God is not only an attribute of God but a foundational truth every Christian should embrace. Consider some of the reasons God’s goodness is important to us.
(1) The “goodness” of God is prominent in the opening chapters of the Bible. Repeatedly, God pronounced everything which He created “good” (see Genesis 1:4, 10, 18; 1 Timothy 4:4). In chapter 2, God saw that it was “not good” for Adam to be alone, and so He created a wife for him (2:18-25). In the garden of Eden, where God had placed Adam and Eve, there was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” From the fruit of this one tree, the man and woman were forbidden to eat. We shall return to this matter of “goodness” in the garden, for it is a vitally important truth. Suffice to say the issues of “goodness” and “evil” are prominent at the beginning of the Bible.
(2) The goodness of God appears to be the sum total of all of God’s attributes. The goodness of God may thus be viewed as one facet of His glorious nature and character and also the overall summation of His nature and character.
19 Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion” (Exodus 33:19; see also Exodus 34:5-7).
(3) We cannot separate what is good from God. You cannot have goodness without God, just as you cannot have God without goodness. God alone is good:
2 I said to the LORD, “Thou art my Lord; I have no good besides Thee” (Psalms 16:2).
16 And behold, one came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” 17 And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is [only] One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17).
No man is good:
1 (For the choir director. [A Psalm] of David.) The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good (Psalms 14:1; see Psalm 53:1; Romans 3:9-18).
God is the source of everything that is good:
17 Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (James 1:17).
God does not withhold anything that is truly good from His children.
11 For the LORD God is a sun and shield; The LORD gives grace and glory; No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly (Psalm 84:11).
We simply cannot separate “good” from “God.” Here is where our society, and especially our educational system, had better take note. You cannot teach values, you cannot teach morality, without teaching about God. “Be ye holy,” God said, “for I am holy” (see 1 Peter 1:16; Leviticus 11:44f.).
(4) Man’s eternal destiny is determined by his decision as to how one can truly be good in God’s sight (See John 5:28-29; Romans 3:1-26; Titus 3:3-7).
(5) Apart from the divine revelation of the Scriptures, we cannot recognize true goodness, for it cannot be understood apart from knowing God and seeing life from His perspective. This is precisely the point of Psalm 73 which we will now consider, for it gives us a radically different definition of “good.”
Asaph, a Levite who was chief of the musicians under David (1 Chronicles 16:4-7,37), composed Psalm 73. My conviction is that the central theme of Psalm 73 is the goodness of God. The first and the last verses of the psalm contain the word “good.” Through the course of time and this psalm, Asaph undergoes a radical change in his understanding of the meaning of the term “good.” Because Asaph’s misconception of the meaning of “good” is virtually the same as evangelical Christians today, we must understand the message of this psalm and the meaning of the term “good.”
Asaph describes a period in his life when he had serious spiritual struggles. His premise was the goodness of God, particularly His goodness to His own people, Israel: “Surely God is good to Israel, To those who are pure in heart!” (verse 1).
To Asaph, this affirmation of truth meant that because God was “good” to Israel, God’s blessings would constantly be poured out upon those Jews who were righteous. On the other hand, the unrighteous could expect many difficulties. Now there is an element of truth in this, as we can see from the blessings and cursings of Deuteronomy 28-30. But it was not altogether true, and this was evident even in the Book of Deuteronomy:
2 “And you shall remember all the way which the LORD your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. 3 And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3).
Asaph admits to his readers that he strayed far off course. He was so far from the truth that he came close to destruction. In his words, “his feet had almost slipped” (verse 2). He seems to be confessing that he considered giving up the faith and forsaking the way of righteousness, supposing that it was of no real benefit.
Asaph’s problem was largely due to his distorted perspective. First of all, he was envious of the wicked. Unlike Lot, whose righteous soul was vexed by the sin all about him, Asaph wished he could be in the sandals of those who were wicked. He did not hate their sin; he envied their success (verse 3). Second, he was self-righteous. He looked upon himself as being better than he was. He seems to have supposed he deserved God’s blessings and concluded his “righteous living” had been in vain:
13 Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure, And washed my hands in innocence; 14 For I have been stricken all day long, And chastened every morning (Psalms 73).
These verses also suggest Asaph views his suffering as coming from God. God was punishing him, he supposed, for being godly. Third, Asaph seems to have been consumed with self-pity. It is really difficult to see life clearly when you are looking at it through tear-filled eyes. And these tears were the tears of self-pity.
I believe Asaph’s words in verses 4-9 which describe the wicked are a description of those whom Asaph saw in the congregation of Israelites who came to worship. Asaph is talking about wicked Jews rather than pagan Gentiles. I also believe Asaph’s analysis is highly distorted and inaccurate.
Asaph makes some very sweeping generalizations in the first half of the psalm, implying that all the wicked prosper and the righteous, which surely included him, suffer. He wrongly supposes the wicked are always healthy and wealthy and thinks none of the wicked experience the difficulties of life. Even in their death, they are spared from discomfort. He likewise thinks those who prosper are all arrogant, blaspheming God, daring Him to know or care about what the wicked are doing.
There is some measure of truth in this. Some of the wealthy wicked would be just as Asaph has described them. But Asaph has over-generalized, making it seem God blesses all the wicked and punishes all the righteous. The wicked flaunt their wickedness and are blessed. The righteous practice their righteousness and are punished for doing so. As far as Asaph is concerned, there is good reason to consider joining the wicked rather than fighting them (see verses 10-14).
But Asaph was wrong, and this he confesses at several points in the psalm.
2 But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling; My steps had almost slipped. 3 For I was envious of the arrogant, [As] I saw the prosperity of the wicked (verses 2-3).
15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,” Behold, I should have betrayed the generation of Thy children (verse 15).
21 When my heart was embittered, And I was pierced within, 22 Then I was senseless and ignorant; I was [like] a beast before Thee (verses 21-22).
The turning point in the psalm is verse 15. Up to this point, Asaph viewed life from a distorted human perspective. To him, the goodness of God meant health and wealth, not unlike the “good life gospeleers” of our own day. But, as Asaph admits, he was wrong. In verses 15-28, he explains why he was wrong, ending with an entirely different definition of “good.”
When Asaph came “into the sanctuary of God,” he was able to “perceive their end” (verse 17). Now Asaph viewed the prosperity of the wicked in the light of eternity rather than simply from the vantage point of time. Those who seemed to be doing so well in their wickedness Asaph now saw in great peril. Their feet were on a slippery place. In but a short time, they would face the judgment of God. Their payday for sin might not come in this life, but it would surely come in eternity:
18 Surely Thou dost set them in slippery places; Thou dost cast them down to destruction. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, Thou wilt despise their form (verses 18-20).
How foolish, even beastly, Asaph had been to think the wicked would get away with their sin, and there would be no day of reckoning. How foolish to conclude God was punishing him for avoiding the sinful ways of the wicked. Asaph now sees his relationship with God in its true light. Eternity holds for him the bright hope of God’s glorious presence. But in addition to this future blessing, Asaph has the pleasure of God’s presence in this life:
23 Nevertheless I am continually with Thee; Thou hast taken hold of my right hand. 24 With Thy counsel Thou wilt guide me, And afterward receive me to glory. 25 Whom have I in heaven [but Thee]? And besides Thee, I desire nothing on earth. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (verses 23-26).
Asaph now sees that the prosperity of the wicked has hardened their hearts toward God. They have become proud, arrogant, and independent of God. Asaph also sees his “affliction,” whatever that might be, as a source of great blessing. His suffering and agony drew him closer to God; the prosperity of the wicked drew them away from God. His trials were indeed a gift from God for Asaph’s good. His struggles had led him into a deeper intimacy with God and were thus worth all the agony and distress of soul. Trusting God and living a holy life are not just the means to eternal blessings; they are the way to great temporal blessings as well.
Now Asaph understands the “goodness” of God in a different way. He has a new definition for “good.” In verse 1, “good” really meant the absence of pain, difficulty, trouble, sorrow, ill health, or poverty. In verse 28, “good” means something far better than physical prosperity:
28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, That I may tell of all Thy works (verse 28).
Nearness to God—intimate fellowship with God—is our highest good. We may say then that whatever interferes with our nearness to God, our fellowship with Him, is actually evil. And whatever draws us into a deeper fellowship with God is actually “good.” When God brings suffering and adversity into our lives, our confidence in His goodness should not be undermined. Instead, we should be reassured of His goodness to us.
In the end, Job’s suffering brought him nearer to God; thus it was good, and God was good in afflicting him. Paul’s suffering brought him nearer to God, and he saw it as a blessing (Philippians 3:10). The chastening of the Lord in the life of the Christian is not only evidence of our sonship, it is God’s working in us for good (Hebrews 12:1-13; see Romans 8:28).
The goodness of God is a life-transforming truth. Let us conclude by considering ways the goodness of God should intersect our attitudes and actions.
(1) The goodness of God is a character trait which applies to every other attribute. God’s wrath is good. God’s holiness is good. God’s righteousness is good. God is good in His entirety. There is nothing about God that is not good. There is nothing God purposes for His children that is not good. God gives to His children only that which is good. And He withholds nothing good from us. God is good, and He is at work in our lives for good. Nothing which God creates, nothing which God accomplishes, is not good.14
We must take this truth of God’s goodness one more step. God allows nothing to happen to the Christian which is not good. We all know this passage well:
28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to [His] purpose (Romans 8:28).
We may be convinced of God’s goodness and yet doubt that everything which happens to us is good. We carefully avoid blaming God, because we know He is good. So we blame Satan for our trials and tribulations. Or, we can always blame people. May I remind you Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was brought about by a “messenger of Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7), and yet God permitted this so His strength might be manifested through Paul’s weakness (12:7-10). And the “evil” Joseph’s brothers intended against him God intended “for good” (Genesis 50:20). Whatever comes into the life of the Christian is a part of God’s purpose to bring about our good and His glory.
(2) We must conclude that teachers who tell us God wants only to bless us with healing and prosperity in this life are, in truth, false teachers. Their teaching leads Christians to the same conclusion Asaph reached in error, a conclusion which, upon reflection, he confesses to be evil and beastly. Knowing God is not the way to the “good life” as taught by the “good life gospeleers.” In fact, as Asaph indicates, along with countless others in the Bible, suffering is often the means by which we come to know God more intimately.
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Thy word (Psalms 119:67).75 I know, O LORD, that Thy judgments are righteous, And that in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me (Psalms 119:75).
18 That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death (Philippians 3:10).
7 And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me—to keep me from exalting myself! 8 Concerning this I entreated the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
Years ago while I was in seminary, one of my professors, Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost, asked our class to pray for his wife. She was going to see the doctor because of some symptoms which might indicate cancer. Later, Dr. Pentecost reported to us the tests were negative, and his wife’s malady was not a malignancy. We all breathed a sigh of relief, and rightly so.
But Dr. Pentecost was not through with his report to us. He went on to challenge us concerning our definition of “good.” He indicated several people had responded something like “God is good!” to the report that his wife did not have cancer. “Yes,” Dr. Pentecost said, “God is good. But, men, I have to say to you that if the doctor’s report had been that my wife did have cancer, God is still good.” He knew what we also must know if we are to think biblically about the goodness of God—God is always good, whether He sends prosperity or pain, health or sickness.
(3) The goodness of God is evident in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is the “good news” (Isaiah 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 61:6; Luke 1:19; 2:10; Acts 8:12; 13:32; Hebrews 4:2, 6), and good it is! God is good to all men in His common grace, showering blessings on the wicked and the righteous alike (Matthew 5:43-45; Acts 14:16-17). But God is particularly good to those who believe in the gospel.
The gospel is predicated on the truth that man is a sinner, deserving God’s eternal wrath (see Romans 1:18-3:23. This is the bad news of our sinful condition and the eternal wrath of God which it deserves. But the “good news” is that God in His goodness has made possible one way by which men may escape judgment, have their sins forgiven, and spend eternity in the blessed presence of God. That way is through the coming of Jesus Christ to live a perfect life, to die on the cross of Calvary in the sinner’s place, and to rise from the dead and ascend into heaven.
Nowhere is the goodness of God more evident than in the person of our Lord. In His goodness, God provided a way for sinners to be forgiven and to be declared righteous. It is not by any good works which we do, but on the basis of the goodness of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Romans 3:19-26; Titus 3:4-7). If you have never trusted in His saving work, I have words of exhortation for you,
8 O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him! (Psalms 34:8).
With this offer of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, I must also issue a word of warning. The goodness of God is directed toward our repentance (Romans 2:4). If we reject the goodness of God in Christ, if we reject the gospel, then we bring upon ourselves the divine wrath of God:
22 For I was ashamed to request from the king troops and horsemen to protect us from the enemy on the way, because we had said to the king, “The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him, but His power and His anger are against all those who forsake Him” (Ezra 8:22).
22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God’s kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off (Romans 11:22).
(4) The goodness of God is a foundational truth that shapes our perspective toward God and His dealings with us in this life. The goodness of God is a fact to which the Bible often testifies. It is a fact which every Christian should believe and embrace. But more than this, it is a perspective through which all of life’s experiences should be viewed.
In the biblical account of the fall of Adam and Eve, it is significant that Satan’s attack was on this dimension of the character of God. It is true Satan virtually called God a liar, but the first attack of Satan was waged against the attribute of His goodness. It was a subtle attack, but one that should be obvious to the Christian who reads these words:
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3 but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, lest you die.’ “ 4 And the serpent said to the woman, “You surely shall not die! 5 For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:1-5).
God is good, and everything He created is good. But the one thing in the garden which was not “good” to eat was “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Satan’s seemingly innocent question was intended to undermine Eve’s confidence in the goodness of God. By the time Satan has finished, Eve has come to view God as the One who is less than good, and the forbidden fruit as that which is good. Once Eve doubted the goodness of God, it was a great deal easier for her to disobey Him. If God was not good and was not acting for her good, then why should she obey Him? Indeed, why should she not act independently of God in seeking her own good—the forbidden fruit?
Satan first changed Eve’s perspective of God, and then he was able to persuade her to disobey God by eating the forbidden fruit. The goodness of God is a perspective from which we can and should view all of God’s commands, including His prohibitions. It is apparent from what happened as a result of the eating of the forbidden fruit that God forbade that fruit for man’s good. The prohibition was an expression of God’s goodness. She did not understand why God forbade it, but knowing that God was good should have been enough. What a good God forbids must be evil, and what a good God commands must be good. We must know the truth found in the Word of God to avoid Satan when he tempts us to change our perspective of God. He often does this by causing us to doubt God and His Word.
My dear friend from seminary days, Tony Emge, phoned last week to tell me his wife had died of cancer. I flew to California to attend the funeral and be with Tony and his children. I do not understand all God purposed to accomplish through Cathie’s tragic death, but the goodness of God gives me a perspective through which I can view it in faith, giving thanks for all He has done (see 1 Thessalonians 5:18).
In the midst of sorrow and unanswered questions, there are certain truths I know to be true. God is good. For the Christian, I know this good God causes all things to work together for good, for all whom He has chosen and who have placed their trust in Him (Romans 8:28). I know Cathie Emge’s death came from the hand of our good God and that He is using it for good. I even can reflect on some of the ways this tragedy is being used for good.
First, I already know Cathie’s death is for her good. The apostle Paul looked forward to the possibility of his death, knowing that to be with Christ is far better (Philippians 1:23) because to be absent from the body means the Christian is present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). Second, Cathie’s death has a good purpose for those who are unsaved. It is a reminder of the certainty of death, sometimes much sooner than we expect. It has provided the opportunity for Christians to demonstrate the reality of their faith in the darkest hours of human experience. It gave the opportunity for the gospel to be clearly communicated at her funeral. And it would seem that already at least one person has come to faith as a result of Cathie’s death.
As I thought of Cathie’s husband and my friend, Tony, it occurred to me that Cathie’s death is also for his good. I had never made this connection before, but I think it is a legitimate application of this text:
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
While thinking about her death before the funeral, it occurred to me we were laying up treasure at the funeral ceremony. Cathie was treasured by her friends and loved ones far more than money. To remain here on earth was to remain subject to corruption (see 2 Corinthians 4:16). To be present with the Lord is to be removed from all corruption (see 1 Corinthians 15:42-53). And to realize that Cathie is now in heaven makes those who love and miss her hunger all the more for heaven as well. How good God is, even in the death of our loved ones!
May God grant that His goodness becomes a truth we not only accept, but embrace, so that it becomes the perspective from which we view all of the events of our lives.
“There is such an absolute perfection in God’s nature and being that nothing is wanting to it or defective in it, and nothing can be added to it to make it better. ‘He is originally good, good of Himself, which nothing else is; for all creatures are good only by participation and communication from God. He is essentially good; not only good, but goodness itself: the creature’s good is a super-added quality, in God it is His essence. He is infinitely good; the creature’s good is but a drop, but in God there is an infinite ocean or gathering together of good. He is eternally and immutably good, for He cannot be less good than He is; as there can be no addition made to Him, so no subtraction from Him’ (Thos. Manton). God is summum bonum, the highest good.”15
God is summum bonum, the chiefest good . . . “All that emanates from God—His decrees, His creation, His laws, His providences—cannot be otherwise than good: as it is written, ‘And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good’” (Gen. 1:31).16
14 There will be some who point out texts such as: 10 But he said unto her, Thou speakest as one of the foolish women speaketh. What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? In all this did not Job sin with his lips (Job 2:10, AV). There are occasions in the Bible where “good” refers to success or prosperity, and “evil” is employed in reference to failure, adversity, or suffering. God does sovereignly choose to send prosperity to one and adversity and suffering to another. But never is God the author of evil (see James 1:13-17).
15 A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God, p. 52.
16 Ibid, pp. 52, 53.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
4. The Wisdom of God
Recently several from our church attended the Ligonier’s 1994 Dallas Conference. Among the speakers were Charles Colson and R. C. Sproul. My favorite speaker was my former seminary professor, Dr. Bruce Waltke, who spoke on the subject, “What Does God Require,” from Micah 6:8. After a very fine exposition, Dr. Waltke gave opportunity for questions. One question concerned the particular words used in the original text of Micah 6:8. When he heard the question, Dr. Waltke tipped his head back, closed his eyes, and prepared to answer.
Sitting beside me was my friend and colleague in ministry, Mark Sellers, who was hearing Dr. Waltke for the first time. Most impressed, especially by the way Dr. Waltke prepared to answer the question, Mark said, “When he closed his eyes, he was mentally reading the text, wasn’t he?” “Yes,” I replied, “with one significant addition . . . he was mentally scrolling the Hebrew text in his mind’s eye.” I am convinced that is exactly what happened.
Dr. Waltke is one of my favorite Bible expositors, and the first thing that always impresses me is his great love for the Lord. The second is his love and commitment to the text of the Scriptures. Here is a man whose knowledge of the Old Testament is awesome.
It is a joy to behold wisdom and knowledge in a man. How much greater then to find in God wisdom and knowledge unsurpassed and infinite. The beauty of God’s character is that each of His attributes compliments the other attributes. We have already considered the infinite power of God—His omnipotence—which enables Him to do anything He chooses. We further studied the goodness of God, which motivates God’s every action toward those who believe, as well as His common grace to unbelievers and believers alike. Now we turn to His infinite wisdom. When we consider these attributes together—God’s goodness, wisdom, and power—we find great comfort and encouragement.
If there is anything the Bible teaches us about God, it is that He is all-wise.
13 “With Him are wisdom and might; To Him belong counsel and understanding” (Job 12:13).
28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable (Isaiah 40:28).
33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! (Romans 11:33; see also Job 9:1-4; 36:5; Isaiah 31:1-2).
God is all-wise, infinitely wise:
5 “Behold, God is mighty but does not despise [any;] [He is] mighty in strength of understanding” (Job 36:5).
5 Great is our Lord, and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite (Psalms 147:5).
God’s wisdom is vastly superior to human wisdom:
8 “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. 9 “For [as] the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9; see also Job 28:12-28; Jeremiah 51:15-17).
God alone is wise:
25 Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, 26 but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, [leading] to obedience of faith; 27 to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 16:25-27; see also 1 Timothy 1:17; Jude 1:25).
It is God who is the source of wisdom:
6 For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth [come] knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 2:6).
20 Daniel answered and said, “Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, for wisdom and power belong to Him” (Daniel 2:20).
5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him (James 1:5).
One might sum up the meaning of the term “wisdom” with the words, “know how.” Wisdom is based upon knowledge. Often, in fact, wisdom and knowledge are mentioned together (see Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15; Luke 1:17 (AV); Romans 11:33; 1 Corinthians 1:24; 2:5; Colossians 2:3; Revelation 5:12; 7:12). Wisdom cannot exist without a knowledge of all the facts pertinent to any purpose or plan. For example, building a Disneyland in Europe seems to have been a disaster. If this venture fails as it seems certain to do, it is because it was planned and built without the knowledge of some very crucial data. Some very serious miscalculations were made which may prove fatal to this venture. The God who is all-wise is also the God who is all-knowing.
God knows everything. Theologians use the term “omniscient” when speaking of God’s infinite knowledge. God knows everything about everything. He knows what men are thinking (see Ezekiel 11:5; Luke 5:21-22). He knows everything that is going to happen. He even knows everything that could happen, under any set of circumstances (see, for example, 1 Samuel 23:10-12; 2 Kings 8:10). God cannot devise a bad plan or fail to bring His purposes and promises to their conclusion because He knows everything. His omniscience undergirds His wisdom.
Wisdom is not just knowledge, but “know how.” God’s wisdom enables Him to “know how” to do anything (see 2 Peter 2:9). Wisdom entails the skillfulness to formulate a plan and to carry it out in the best and most effective manner. Bezalel was a craftsman, a man with incredible “wisdom” in the art of making the furnishings for the Tabernacle (see Exodus 31:1-5). Joshua had been given wisdom to know how to lead the nation Israel (Deuteronomy 34:9). Solomon asked for and received the wisdom and knowledge needed to rule Israel (2 Chronicles 1:7-12).
A. W. Tozer and J. I. Packer have defined wisdom as follows:
“In the Holy Scriptures wisdom, when used of God and good men, always carries a strong moral connotation. It is conceived as being pure, loving, and good.… Wisdom, among other things, is the ability to devise perfect ends and to achieve those ends by the most perfect means. It sees the end from the beginning, so there can be no need to guess or conjecture. Wisdom sees everything in focus, each in proper relation to all, and is thus able to work toward predestined goals with flawless precision.”17
“Wisdom is the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it. Wisdom is, in fact, the practical side of moral goodness. As such, it is found in its fulness only in God. He alone is naturally and entirely and invariable wise.”18
When it comes to the wisdom of God, a picture is worth more than a thousand words. As we look at a few passages of Scripture which speak of the wisdom of God, we will attempt to sharpen the definition of God’s wisdom and show its relevance to our daily lives.
Wisdom at the Fall of Man: Genesis 2 and 3; Proverbs 3
I must confess I had never considered the account of the fall in Genesis in light of the wisdom of God. Nevertheless, it is clear that Eve’s desire for wisdom contributed to her fall:
1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Indeed, has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” 2 And the woman said to the serpent, “From the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat; 3 but from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat from it or touch it, lest you die.’” 4 And the serpent said to the woman, “You surely shall not die! 5 For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make [one] wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate (Genesis 3:1-6, emphasis mine).
Verse 6 informs the reader just how Eve came to perceive the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She perceived it as good, good for food. She came to see it as delightful to look at and as desirable because she now believed the fruit of this tree would make her wise.
Let us be very clear: the way Eve perceived the forbidden fruit of that tree was not reality. Eve now saw the fruit of that tree as Satan wanted her to perceive it. She saw the tree as desirable because she was deceived:
13 For it was Adam who was first created, [and] then Eve. 14 And [it was] not Adam [who] was deceived, but the woman being quite deceived, fell into transgression. 15 But [women] shall be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint (1 Timothy 2:13-15).
The fruit of the tree was not good for food, because God had forbidden Eve and her husband to eat it. And neither was the fruit of that tree able to make one wise. The tree was able to do what its name indicates. It was not called the “tree of wisdom,” but the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Eating of the fruit of the tree did enable Adam and Eve to “know good and evil.”
Wisdom is not “knowing good and evil.” Wisdom is knowing good from evil. Eating the fruit of the forbidden tree did cause Adam and Eve to know evil. They knew evil by experience.19 The worst of it is that Adam and Eve did come to a new awareness of “good and evil,” but notice what happened in the process. What was evil became “good” in their eyes. Eating of the fruit of that tree was forbidden by God. To eat that fruit was to do what was evil. And yet, with a little prompting and deception by Satan, Eve came to see this “evil” (by God’s definition) as “good” (in her perception, as suggested by Satan).
After eating the forbidden fruit, that which was “good” came to be looked upon as evil. When God made Adam and then His wife, they (like all the rest of God’s creation) were good in His sight. They were created naked, and they knew no shame. Their nakedness was good in their state of innocence. But once they sinned by eating the fruit of that tree, they were ashamed of their nakedness and tried to cover themselves. Their nakedness was no longer “good” but “evil.” And the fellowship they enjoyed with God was most certainly good. But once they disobeyed Him, they tried to hide from His presence rather than enjoy it. Why? Because this “good” (of enjoying God) was now “evil.” They knew good and evil, but now the labels have been switched. Is Satan not guilty of doing that which God forbade?
20 Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20).
Satan assured Eve that in eating the fruit of the forbidden tree she would be “like God, knowing good and evil” (verse 5). Satan’s sin was in trying to be “like God” in a competitive way and by his own effort (Isaiah 14:14). I fear Eve’s motivation may have been similar. The truth was that eating of “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” would not make Eve “like God.” Eating that fruit was disobedience; it was sin. God is righteous, and one does not become like Him by sinning. She was deceived, quite deceived, as Paul points out in 1 Timothy 2:14.
But was it wrong for Eve to desire to be wise? Surely it cannot be evil to desire to be wise, can it? When “knowledge” is the knowledge of evil, then ignorance truly is bliss. But did God want to keep Adam and Eve ignorant? Did He forbid them to become wise? Not at all! God wanted Adam and Eve to be wise concerning what is good and ignorant of what is evil:
19 For the report of your obedience has reached to all; therefore I am rejoicing over you, but I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil (Romans 16:19).
Satan’s “wisdom” was a knowledge of “good” and “evil.” And in the knowing of evil, Adam and Eve became alienated from the enjoyment of “good.”
Adam and Eve were given every opportunity and encouragement by God to know Him, to be like Him, and to be wise with respect to all that is good. Let us note some of the ways God made this possible. First, they could be wise concerning good by becoming students of creation:
24 O LORD, how many are Thy works! in wisdom Thou hast made them all; The earth is full of Thy possessions. 25 There is the sea, great and broad, In which are swarms without number, Animals both small and great. 26 There the ships move along, [And] Leviathan, which Thou hast formed to sport in it (Psalms 104:24-26).
5 Him who made the heavens with skill, For His lovingkindness is everlasting (Psalms 136:5).
19 The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; By understanding He established the heavens. 20 By His knowledge the deeps were broken up, And the skies drip with dew (Proverbs 3:19-20).
22 “The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. 23 From everlasting I was established, From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth. 24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, When there were no springs abounding with water. 25 Before the mountains were settled, Before the hills I was brought forth; 26 While He had not yet made the earth and the fields, Nor the first dust of the world. 27 When He established the heavens, I was there, when He inscribed a circle on the face of the deep, 28 When He made firm the skies above, When the springs of the deep became fixed, 29 When He set for the sea its boundary, So that the water should not transgress His command, When He marked out the foundations of the earth; 30 Then I was beside Him, [as] a master workman; And I was daily [His] delight, Rejoicing always before Him, 31 Rejoicing in the world, His earth, And [having] my delight in the sons of men” (Proverbs 8:22-31).
12 [It is] He who made the earth by His power, Who established the world by His wisdom; And by His understanding He has stretched out the heavens (Jeremiah 10:12).
15 [It is] He who made the earth by His power, Who established the world by His wisdom, And by His understanding He stretched out the heavens. 16 When He utters His voice, [there is] a tumult of waters in the heavens, And He causes the clouds to ascend from the end of the earth; He makes lightning for the rain, And brings forth the wind from His storehouses (Jeremiah 51:15-16).
Did Adam and Eve wish to be wise? Then let them study the creation of which they were a part. Did they wish to know “good?” Then let them know it in His creation:
24 Then God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth after their kind”; and it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good (Genesis 1:24-25).
Did Adam and Eve desire to know “good” and to become wise, like God? Then let them take every advantage which God gave them to be with Him in sweet communion and fellowship. It would seem God daily was walking in the garden with Adam and his wife (Genesis 3:8). And the moment they sinned by disobeying Him, they attempted to avoid being in His presence. How much they could have learned of Him and from Him!
Did Adam and Eve wish to become wise and understanding? Then let them obey God:
6 “So keep and do [them], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (Deuteronomy 4:6).
10 The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do [His commandments]; His praise endures forever (Psalms 111:10).
Satan deceived Eve into believing disobedience was the path to wisdom when the opposite was, and still is, true. Wisdom is not the cause of obedience as much as the result of obedience. We obey God not because we are wise enough to do so, but because we trust in God and His wisdom which is revealed in His commandments. By disobeying God, Adam and Eve evidenced their distrust in God and His infinite wisdom.
Finally, Adam and Eve could have become wise by eating of the fruit of that other tree, just as prominently placed, perhaps even more prominently placed, in the center of the garden—the tree of life. Our understanding of Genesis 3 is greatly enhanced by a consideration of Proverbs 3.
1 My son, do not forget my teaching, But let your heart keep my commandments; 2 For length of days and years of life, And peace they will add to you. 3 Do not let kindness and truth leave you; Bind them around your neck, Write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 So you will find favor and good repute In the sight of God and man. 5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart, And do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight. 7 Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the LORD and turn away from evil. 8 It will be healing to your body, And refreshment to your bones. 9 Honor the LORD from your wealth, And from the first of all your produce; 10 So your barns will be filled with plenty, And your vats will overflow with new wine. 11 My son, do not reject the discipline of the LORD, Or loathe His reproof, 12 For whom the LORD loves He reproves, Even as a father, the son in whom he delights. 13 How blessed is the man who finds wisdom, And the man who gains understanding. 14 For its profit is better than the profit of silver, And its gain than fine gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels; And nothing you desire compares with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; In her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are pleasant ways, And all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, And happy are all who hold her fast. 19 The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; By understanding He established the heavens. 20 By His knowledge the deeps were broken up, And the skies drip with dew (Proverbs 3:1-20, emphasis mine).
From a cursory study of this text, several truths are self-evident and serve as a most helpful commentary on Genesis 3 and the fall of man. First, we are urged to desire wisdom as something of the highest value (see verses 13-18). Divine wisdom is to be greatly desired. Satan turned Eve’s desires in the opposite direction—to that which would lead her from wisdom to folly—from life to death. Second, we are told that divine wisdom is evident in creation (verses 19-20). Adam and Eve had all creation before them to teach them of God’s wisdom. God was not withholding His wisdom from them, but displaying it before them. Third, wisdom does not balk at discipline, but recognizes it as an evidence of the love of God (verses 11-12). Eve was led to believe exactly the opposite. Satan suggested God withheld the forbidden fruit because He was selfish and unloving. Fourth, wisdom is the result of obedience (verses 1-2). Satan convinced Eve that wisdom would result from her disobedience. Fifth, to have true wisdom, we must cease trusting in ourselves and our own assessment of what is “good” and trust rather in God’s wisdom and in His commands. Sixth, we should see that wisdom is a “tree of life” (verses 2, 18). I do not think this image of a “tree of life” is haphazard. Eating of the “tree of life” was the way to wisdom, which is why Satan sought to change the focus of Eve’s attention and desire from this tree to the forbidden tree.
The fall of Adam and Eve may seem a distant, unrelated event of ancient history, but do not be deceived by this false perception. We have much to learn from Eve and much to apply in our own daily lives. As Paul urged, we must seek to be wise about what is good and ignorant concerning evil: “I want you to be wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil” (Romans 16:19b). We must learn to focus our desires on what is good and to discipline those desires which lead to our destruction:
6 Now these things happened as examples for us, that we should not crave evil things, as they also craved (1 Corinthians 10:6).
11 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts, which wage war against the soul (1 Peter 2:11).
1 As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for Thee, O God (Psalms 42:1).
1 Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, 2 like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation (1 Peter 2:1-2).
Christians today seek to be wise, but all too often it is not God’s wisdom they seek. They seem ignorant of the fact that there is a false wisdom which must be rejected:
13 Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him show by his good behavior his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and [so] lie against the truth. 15 This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. 18 And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace (James 3:13-18).
12 For our proud confidence is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in holiness and godly sincerity, not in fleshly wisdom but in the grace of God, we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially toward you (2 Corinthians 1:12).
23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, [but are] of no value against fleshly indulgence (Colossians 2:23).
The wisdom of God and the “wisdom” of men are not the same; they are not compatible. Indeed, they are in opposition to each other:
18 For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I WILL DESTROY THE WISDOM OF THE WISE, AND THE CLEVERNESS OF THE CLEVER I WILL SET ASIDE.” 20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not [come to] know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. 6 Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; 7 but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden [wisdom,] which God predestined before the ages to our glory (1 Corinthians 2:1-7).
We sometimes hear, “All truth is God’s truth.” In a sense, I suppose this is true. But the only “truth” we know to be truth is the “truth” which is in Christ, the truth revealed in God’s Word (John 17:17). All other “truths” are claims of truth which may or may not be true. The one thing we do know about these other “truths” is that they are not essential truths, for God has revealed to us “all that is necessary for life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3-4).
True wisdom, the wisdom which is a “tree of life,” does not come from below, from man; it comes from above, from God. Too many Christians try to become wise by reading secular sources (not that we should avoid all secular reading, but we should not read these to become wise). And even more Christians are reading books and works written by “Christian experts,” who merely mouth secular thinking baptized with religious terminology. Let us desire God’s wisdom as a “tree of life,” and let us look for it in God’s Word and pursue it by keeping His commands. Let us not persist in the very thing which brought about the fall.
6 For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth [come] knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 2:6). 12 “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, And I find knowledge [and] discretion. 13 The fear of the LORD is to hate evil; Pride and arrogance and the evil way, And the perverted mouth, I hate. 14 Counsel is mine and sound wisdom; I am understanding, power is mine. 15 By me kings reign, And rulers decree justice. 16 By me princes rule, and nobles, All who judge rightly. 17 I love those who love me; And those who diligently seek me will find me. 18 Riches and honor are with me, Enduring wealth and righteousness. 19 My fruit is better than gold, even pure gold, And my yield than choicest silver. 20 I walk in the way of righteousness, In the midst of the paths of justice, 21 To endow those who love me with wealth, That I may fill their treasuries” (Proverbs 8:12-21).
The Wisdom of God in Christ and His Church: Ephesians 1 and 3
7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace, 8 which He lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight 9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him 10 with a view to an administration suitable to the fulness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth (Ephesians 1:7-10).
8 To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God, who created all things; 10 in order that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly [places.] 11 [This was] in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and confident access through faith in Him. 13 Therefore I ask you not to lose heart at my tribulations on your behalf, for they are your glory (Ephesians 3:8-13).
God’s Wisdom Revealed Through Israel: Romans 9-11
God promised Abraham that in him, in his seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). It seems this would have taken place through the entire nation, but history makes it clear the nation will not be subject to God and will persistently resist and rebel against God. It was not through the seed (plural) of Abraham that God brought about the blessing of the world, but through the seed (singular) of Abraham—Jesus Christ:
16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as [referring] to many, but [rather] to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ (Galatians 3:16).
And the “sons of Abraham” are not just the physical seed of Abraham (see Romans 9:6-13) but the spiritual seed of Abraham:
26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:26-29; see also Romans 4).
It was not through the obedience of the nation Israel the Gentiles came to possess the blessings of Abraham’s seed; it was through their disobedience:
30 For just as you once were disobedient to God, but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, 31 so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. 32 For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all (Romans 11:30-32).
Looking back on the salvation God has brought about in Christ, in spite of and even because of Israel’s disobedience, Paul can only stand in awe of the wisdom of God to plan such a thing and bring it about:
33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? 35 Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him [be] the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
God’s wisdom exceeds man’s wisdom and even man’s imagination. God brings about what He has promised in ways we could never imagine or even believe if we were told in advance. God’s wisdom is seen in His dealings with the nation Israel.
God’s Wisdom Revealed in Christ to the Church: Ephesians 1
Paul indicates in Ephesians 1 the eternal purpose of God to sum up all things in Christ. In the Old Testament, the coming of Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah was progressively revealed in greater detail. This began with the promise of salvation from sin and the defeat of Satan through Eve’s seed in Genesis 3:15. It was more fully disclosed in the Abrahamic (Genesis 12:1-3) and Davidic (2 Samuel 7:14) covenants. In the Psalms (e.g. Psalm 22) and the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 52:13–53:12), more and more was said about Messiah, until in Micah 5:2, we are told His birthplace.
God promised to bring salvation and blessing not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles. He promised a Messiah who was a man, the seed of Eve and of Abraham and of David, but also One who was the divine Son of God. He foretold of a coming of Christ in which He would be rejected and suffer for the sins of men (Psalm 22; Isaiah 52:13–53:12) and of a triumphal coming of Messiah to put down His enemies (Psalm 2:7-9; 110). These seemingly contradictory promises made the whole matter of God’s purpose a mystery (see, for example, 1 Peter 1:10-12). But with the first coming of Christ, the mystery has been resolved. And now, as Paul indicates in Ephesians 1, the matter has come into focus in Christ. All of God’s purposes and promises culminate in Christ. And now, in place of wonder at the mystery of the past, we are overcome with wonder at the wisdom of God which accomplished all of this.
God’s Wisdom is Being Revealed Through the Church: Ephesians 3
God’s eternal purpose is to reveal His wisdom to the celestial beings as well as to His church. God is still accomplishing His purpose, which will culminate in the second coming of His Son and the establishment of His kingdom upon the earth. When this purpose and program is completed, the full scope of God’s wisdom will have been revealed, and this wisdom will be revealed as so great it will provide the fuel for the praise of God throughout all eternity.
Is it any wonder the basis for every creature’s (earthly and heavenly) eternal praise may be worthy of thousands of years to establish? No wonder God is taking His time in revealing and bringing to completion His marvelous plan decreed in eternity past, which in its culmination discloses His infinite wisdom.
In thinking about this text in Ephesians 3, it suddenly occurred to me that God is something like an awesome writer, producer and director, although I wouldn’t press the analogy too far. In eternity past, the script of history was written, and there are no edits. His eternal plan was formulated in His goodness and wisdom. The Israelites and saints of Old were the actors or players in times past, and the saints (not to mention all others) are the players today. Even the angelic host, including Satan, is involved in this great drama. Each act is a dispensation or, for non-dispensationalists, a new outworking of God’s plan. Act I began with the creation of the angelic hosts and ended with the fall of Satan. Act II began at the creation of the world and with mankind, starting with Adam and Eve. Act III commenced with the calling of Abraham. Act IV began with the birth of the nation Israel at the Exodus. Act V commenced with the first coming of Christ. The great and final act begins with the second coming of Christ.
The purpose of this lengthy drama is the demonstration of the glory of God. In Ephesians 3, Paul speaks of God’s purpose as God presently working to display His wisdom through the church. When this act or chapter is consummated, all creation, including the heavenly creatures, will have all eternity to marvel at His wisdom and to praise and glorify Him.
Do we sometimes wonder why God takes so long to fulfill His promises and to answer our prayers? It is because His drama is vastly bigger than we are, and He has chosen to take thousands of years to present it to the cosmic audience. Do we wonder why we cannot understand at present exactly what God is doing, how he is using the most unusual circumstances (including man’s sin and rebellion, sickness, death, sorrow) to achieve His purposes? God leaves these matters a mystery because He is creating and sustaining the interest of His audience. He, the great author, producer, and director, is creating the suspense appropriate to the grand conclusion of the final act. He dare not inform us, because we would then not be proven faithful to the degree that we are. And He also dare not inform us because this would dispel the intense curiosity and wonder which holds all of heaven in rapt attention (see 1 Peter 1:12; 1 Corinthians 11:10).
Do we sometimes wonder why God is putting us to the test in a seemingly private and personal way, a way that no one seems to be aware of but us? Our thinking is wrong! There is, as the writer to the Hebrews informs us, a “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) looking on with fixed attention even this moment. When we endure the tests and trials of this life, without knowing as Job did, for example, we are left with only one thing in which to trust—God Himself. When life simply does not make sense, we must look to Him who is the Author and the Finisher of our faith, to Him who has a great cosmic plan, a plan to reveal His glory and to accomplish that which is good for His people. We must trust in Him who is all-wise and who is also all powerful.
What a great privilege is ours to be a part of this great drama and to have a part in bringing praise and glory to our all-wise God! This matter is beautifully summed up by A. W. Tozer:
“With the goodness of God to desire our highest welfare, the wisdom of God to plan it, and the power of God to achieve it, what do we lack? Surely we are the most favored of all creatures.”20
17 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1961), p. 66.
18 J. I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 80.
19 In Genesis 4:1, we are told Adam “knew” his wife. This speaks not of intellectual knowledge, but of personal, intimate, and experiential knowledge. I believe “knowing” good and evil is the knowledge of evil which comes by experiencing it.
20 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1961), p. 70.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
5. The Holiness of God
Many people attend church on Easter Sunday for the first or second time of the year (they also come at Christmas). There seems to be something positive, something encouraging and hopeful about Easter. There is the emphasis on the resurrection of Christ and the hope of resurrection for all men, although, for the unbeliever, this hope is ill-founded.
The crucifixion of Christ began as a festive celebration, appearing to be a victory for His opponents and a stunning defeat for Christ. But as events leading to the death of our Lord took place, all of this changed. The crowds were terrified by what they saw, and they left shaken:
48 And all the multitudes who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, [began] to return, beating their breasts (Luke 23:46-48).
After our Lord had risen from the dead and ascended to the Father, the disciples began to proclaim Him as the promised Messiah and risen Lord (see Acts 2:22-36; 3:11-26). This caused great consternation for those who thought they had silenced Him once for all (see Acts 4:1-2).
For the Christian, the resurrection of our Lord from the grave is a comforting truth, which should also inspire reverence and awe, for the resurrection of Christ from the dead is proof of His holiness. But this same resurrection should instill a different kind of fear in the hearts of those who have rejected Him, for when He returns to this earth He will do so to defeat His enemies. If they truly understand its implications, the resurrection of our Lord should not comfort the unbeliever. It can, however, motivate unbelievers to repent and turn to Him for the forgiveness of sins and for eternal life, even as it did for thousands on the day of Pentecost (see Acts 2:37-42).
As we study the attribute of the holiness of God and the Son of God (not forgetting the Holy Spirit of God), let us consider the response which this truth should produce in our lives as we seek to worship and serve Him.
As we approach the subject of the holiness of God, let us be mindful of the importance of this divine attribute. R. C. Sproul makes this insightful observation from Isaiah 6:
“The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.”21
The term “holy” is often understood in its contemporary usage rather than its true meaning in the Scriptures. For this reason, our study must begin by reviewing several dimensions of the definition of holiness.
(1) To be holy is to be distinct, separate, in a class by oneself. As Sproul puts it:
The primary meaning of holy is ‘separate.’ It comes from an ancient word that meant, ‘to cut,’ or ‘to separate.’ Perhaps even more accurate would be the phrase ‘a cut above something.’ When we find a garment or another piece of merchandise that is outstanding, that has a superior excellence, we use the expression that it is ‘a cut above the rest.’22
This means that the one who is holy is uniquely holy, with no rivals or competition.
“When the Bible calls God holy it means primarily that God is transcendentally separate. He is so far above and beyond us that He seems almost totally foreign to us. To be holy is to be ‘other,’ to be different in a special way. The same basic meaning is used when the word holy is applied to earthly things.”23
The Scriptures put it this way:
11 “Who is like Thee among the gods, O LORD? Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, Awesome in praises, working wonders? (Exodus 15:11). 2 “There is no one holy like the LORD, Indeed, there is no one besides Thee, Nor is there any rock like our God (1 Samuel 2:2).
8 There is no one like Thee among the gods, O Lord; Nor are there any works like Thine. 9 All nations whom Thou hast made shall come and worship before Thee, O Lord; And they shall glorify Thy name. 10 For Thou art great and doest wondrous deeds; Thou alone art God (Psalms 86:8-10; see also Psalm 99:1-3; Isaiah 40:25; 57:15).
(2) To be holy is to be morally pure.
When things are made holy, when they are consecrated, they are set apart unto purity. They are to be used in a pure way. They are to reflect purity as well as simple apartness. Purity is not excluded from the idea of the holy; it is contained within it. But the point we must remember is that the idea of the holy is never exhausted by the idea of purity. It includes purity but is much more than that. It is purity and transcendence. It is a transcendent purity.24
3 Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? and who may stand in His holy place? 4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood, And has not sworn deceitfully. 5 He shall receive a blessing from the LORD And righteousness from the God of his salvation (Psalms 24:3-5).
3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD Of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5 Then I said, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:3-5).
13a [Thine] eyes are too pure to approve evil, And Thou canst not look on wickedness [with favor] (Habakkuk 1:13a).
(3) For God to be holy is for Him to be holy in relation to every aspect of His nature and character.
When we use the word holy to describe God, we face another problem. We often describe God by compiling a list of qualities or characteristics that we call attributes. We say that God is a spirit, that He knows everything, that He is loving, just, merciful, gracious, and so on. The tendency is to add the idea of the holy to this long list of attributes as one attribute among many. But when the word holy is applied to God, it does not signify one single attribute. On the contrary, God is called holy in a general sense. The word is used as a synonym for his deity. That is, the word holy calls attention to all that God is. It reminds us that His love is holy love, his justice is holy justice, his mercy is holy mercy, his knowledge is holy knowledge, his spirit is holy spirit.25
The holiness of God is not merely a theological subject fit for scholars with the interest and stamina to pursue it. Indeed, the holiness of God is a matter of great importance to every living soul. The Christian should be especially concerned with the holiness of God. Several incidents in the Old and New Testaments underscore the importance of holiness to the believer. These examples are but a few of the accounts in Scripture dealing with God’s holiness and its impact on saints.
1 Then the sons of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin in the first month; and the people stayed at Kadesh. Now Miriam died there and was buried there. 2 And there was no water for the congregation; and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. 3 The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! 4 Why then have you brought the LORD’S assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? 5 And why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.” 6 Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting, and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the LORD appeared to them; 7 and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 8 “Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.” 9 So Moses took the rod from before the LORD, just as He had commanded him; 10 and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” 11 Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank. 12 But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” 13 Those [were] the waters of Meribah, because the sons of Israel contended with the LORD, and He proved Himself holy among them (Numbers 20:1-14).
12 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go up to this mountain of Abarim, and see the land which I have given to the sons of Israel. 13 And when you have seen it, you too shall be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother was; 14 for in the wilderness of Zin, during the strife of the congregation, you rebelled against My command to treat Me as holy before their eyes at the water.” (These are the waters of Meribah of Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin.) (Numbers 27:12-14).
Moses had good reason to be angry with the Israelites. They were indeed a “stiff-necked people,” even as God Himself had said (see Exodus 33:5). The Israelites arrived at Kadesh, a place whose name meant “holy.” There, Miriam died and was buried. At Kadesh, there was no water for the people to drink. The people were hostile and a mob contended with Moses and Aaron wishing they were dead, or even better, that Moses and Aaron were. They protested they had not been “led” as much as “mis-led” by Moses to a land far from what they were promised. That there was now no water here was the final straw.
Moses and Aaron went to the doorway of the tent of meeting, and there the glory of the Lord appeared to them. God then commanded Moses to take his rod and speak to the rock, from which water would flow for the people. Moses was furious with the people as he gathered them before the rock, the “spiritual rock” Paul later identifies as Christ Himself (1 Corinthians 10:4). Instead of merely speaking to the rock as commanded, in his anger, Moses struck the rock twice. The consequences were indeed severe.
Who has not lost his or her temper and done worse than striking a rock with a stick? Yet this act was so serious in God’s sight that He forbade Moses to enter into the land of promise. Moses never saw the land to which he came so close. Why? God told him, and he recorded it for us: “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel.…” (Numbers 20:12). And by dealing severely with Moses for his transgression, God is said to have “proved Himself holy among them” (verse 13).
In a moment of anger, Moses sinned, and for this sin he was kept from entering the land of promise. The act was striking the rock. But it was much more than this. Striking the rock was an act of disobedience, of failing to follow God’s instructions. Even more, it was identified by God as an act of unbelief:
12 “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (verse 12).
I always thought Moses sinned merely by striking the rock which somehow, like the burning bush of years earlier (see Exodus 3), was a manifestation of the presence of God. The root sin was irreverence, and that irreverence was the cause of Moses’ disobedience26 and his striking the rock. Moses’ anger with the people overcame his fear of God. His fear of God should have overcome his anger with the Israelites. God took Moses’ irreverence most seriously.
1 Now David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 And David arose and went with all the people who were with him to Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God which is called by the Name, the very name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned [above] the cherubim. 3 And they placed the ark of God on a new cart that they might bring it from the house of Abinadab which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were leading the new cart. 4 So they brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill; and Ahio was walking ahead of the ark. 5 Meanwhile, David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the LORD with all kinds of [instruments made of] fir wood, and with lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals. 6 But when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out toward the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen nearly upset [it.] 7 And the anger of the LORD burned against Uzzah, and God struck him down there for his irreverence; and he died there by the ark of God. 8 And David became angry because of the LORD’S outburst against Uzzah, and that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. 9 So David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the LORD come to me?” 10 And David was unwilling to move the ark of the LORD into the city of David with him; but David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. 11 Thus the ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the LORD blessed Obed-edom and all his household (2 Samuel 6:1-11).
The Philistines had captured the ark of God and sought to keep it as a trophy of their victory. It soon became evident the ark was the source of much suffering to them. They passed it about and finally determined to be rid of it by sending it back to Israel. They transported it in a way the Philistine priests and diviners recommended. They put a guilt offering of gold in the ark and placed it on a newly-made cart drawn by two cows just separated from their calves (see 1 Samuel 6).
If the Philistines could not stand in the presence of the Holy God of Israel, neither could the people of Beth-shemesh where the ark arrived:
19 And He struck down some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter. 20 And the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom shall He go up from us?” 21 So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have brought back the ark of the LORD; come down and take it up to you” (1 Samuel 6:19-21).
The men of Kiriath-jearim came and took the ark of the LORD and brought it to the house of Abinadab and consecrated Abinadab’s son, Eleazar, to keep the ark, where it remained for some 20 years (1 Samuel 7:1-2). Finally, David, accompanied by 30,000 Israelites, went to Kiriath-jearim to bring the ark to Jerusalem.
The ark was a symbol of the presence of God, a most holy object (see 2 Samuel 6:2) which was to be hidden in the holiest place in the tabernacle, the “holy of holies.” According to God’s instructions, it was to be transported by the Kohathites who carried it by holding onto poles inserted through its attached rings (see Exodus 25:10-22; Numbers 4:1-20). No one was to look into the ark, or they would die.
The day the ark was transported to Jerusalem was a great and happy moment. But they had forgotten how holy this ark was, because it was the place where God’s presence was to abide. Rather than transporting the ark as instructed in the law, the ark was placed on a new ox cart. It was a most jubilant procession as the ark made its way home. What a happy time. But when the oxen stumbled, and it looked as though the cart might be overturned and hurled to the ground, Uzzah reached out to steady the ark. Instantly, he was struck dead by God.
David’s first response was frustration and anger with God. Why had God been so harsh with Uzzah? David seems to have forgotten God’s instructions in the Law about how the ark was to be transported. He also seems to have forgotten how many had previously died when due reverence for the presence of God associated with the ark was not shown. God had spoiled their celebration, and David was miffed. Only upon reflection did David realize the gravity of the error. And concerning Uzzah, God struck him dead because of his irreverence (2 Samuel 6:7).
Irreverence is a dangerous malady. Even when our motives are sincere and we are actively involved in the worship of God, we must constantly be mindful of the holiness of God and maintain a reverence for Him manifested by our obedience to His instructions and commands.
1 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. 2 Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD Of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. 5 Then I said,
“Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, with a burning coal in his hand which he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 And he touched my mouth [with it] and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” 9 And He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed” (Isaiah 6:1-10).
The death of Uzziah seems to have spelled the end of an era, a golden era, for Judah. The “good times” were over; the “hard times” were about to commence as verses 9 and 10 indicate. Isaiah’s ministry is commencing from a human point of view at the very worst possible time. His ministry was not going to be regarded a success (as if many of the prophets of old were successful). He was in for a chilly reception. He and his message would be spurned. What did Isaiah need to give him the proper perspective and endurance to persevere in such hard times? The answer: a vision of the holiness of God.
This is precisely what God gave to Isaiah—a dramatic revelation of His holiness. He saw the Lord sitting enthroned, lofty and exalted. The angels who stood above Him were magnificent, and they called out to one another, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (verse 3). The earth quaked, and the temple was filled with smoke. It was as dramatic a vision of God and His holiness as one could wish to see.
Isaiah’s response is far from what we hear today from many who claim to teach biblical truth. He was not impressed with his “significance.” His “self-esteem” was not enhanced. Just the opposite took place. His vision of the holiness of God caused Isaiah to lament his utter sinfulness. If God was holy, Isaiah saw he was not. Isaiah confessed his own unholiness and that of his people.
What is most significant is that Isaiah sees his sinfulness (and his people’s) evidenced by their “lips.” Isaiah confessed he was “a man of unclean lips” and that he lived among a people with the same malady. How was Isaiah able to be so focused about his sin that he saw it evidencing itself in his speech? Other texts in Scripture say a great deal about the tongue and the way sin is evident in our speech (see, for example, many of the Proverbs, also Matthew 12:32-37; Romans 3:10-14; James 3:1-12).
Notice that if the curse Isaiah recognized was directed toward his lips, so was the cure. One of the seraphim touched Isaiah’s mouth with a burning coal, symbolically cleansing him and his mouth. What is God attempting to accomplish in Isaiah’s life by this vision? I believe God wanted Isaiah to understand that the vision of His holiness was to have a great impact on what he said and how he said it.
I find the message and meaning of Isaiah 6 much easier to understand in light of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 1-3 and 2 Corinthians 2-6. Paul seems to have been accused of being dull in his speech, while others (especially the false apostles who sought a following among the Corinthians—see 2 Corinthians 11:12-33) were fascinating as they employed persuasive and entertaining techniques. But Paul was a man intent on pleasing God rather than men (2 Corinthians 2:15-16; 4:1-2). Consequently, Paul would not dilute the gospel to make it more appealing to men (2 Corinthians 2:17; 4:1-2). He spoke the truth in the simplest and clearest terms so men would be supernaturally convinced and converted, rather than persuaded by human cleverness (1 Corinthians 2:1-5).
At the outset of the revelation given to the apostle John (recorded as the Book of Revelation), John saw a vision of the Lord exalted and holy. This vision preceded the command to record what he saw:
19 “Write therefore the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall take place after these things” (Revelation 1:19, emphasis mine).
It is no wonder then that at the end of this concluding book of the Bible we find these words underscoring the importance of preserving this record just as it was revealed:
18 I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book (Revelation 22:18-19).
Isaiah was to serve as a prophet in a day when his message would be rejected and resisted. The sinful disposition of man is to avoid pain and persecution, and thus alter, if possible, the message and method of communicating the message of Christ so men will respond more favorably. At the outset of Isaiah’s ministry, God manifested His holiness to Isaiah to motivate him to be faithful to his calling and to the message he was to be given. Isaiah never lost the vision of whom he served and whom he must both fear and please.
The glory of his ministry and his message was in the One who gave it to him—the One whom he served. Paul had a somewhat similar experience at the beginning of his ministry; at his conversion, he beheld the glory of God and never forgot it. The glory of his message and ministry sustained him even in the midst of suffering, adversity, and rejection (even by some of the saints). Paul was faithful to his calling and the message he was given to proclaim, even unto death (see 2 Corinthians 3-6).
The promises of the coming of Messiah in the Old Testament became increasingly specific, until it was evident that Messiah must not only be human but divine (see Isaiah 9:6-7; Micah 5:2). As such, He must be holy. And so, when the angel told Mary of the child to be miraculously born of her, a virgin, he said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35, emphasis mine).
Throughout the life and ministry of our Lord on the earth, it became increasingly clear this was no ordinary man; indeed, He was more than a prophet and more than a mere man. This was the Son of God. Even the demons had to acknowledge Him as the”Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24; Luke 4:34). The things Jesus said and did marked Him out as One who stood head and shoulders above any other (merely human) being. Peter was a professional fisherman, but when he obeyed the instructions of the Lord Jesus, the results were awesome. Peter’s response was appropriate:
8 When Simon Peter saw [that,] he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” (Luke 5:8).
When Jesus healed the demon-possessed dumb man, the multitudes marveled, saying,
33 “Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33).
When Jesus told the paralytic that his sins were forgiven and then proceeded to heal him, the people could not escape the implications:
5 And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 But there were some of the scribes sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, 7 Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 And immediately Jesus, aware in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, “Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Arise, and take up your pallet and walk’? 10 But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—He said to the paralytic, 11 “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately took up the pallet and went out in the sight of all; so that they were all amazed and were glorifying God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this” (Mark 2:5-12).
When the man born blind was healed by Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees were most reluctant to admit that such a miracle had taken place. The blind man could “see” the implications of what had happened, and he pressed them on his interrogators:
30 The man answered and said to them, “Well, here is an amazing thing, that you do not know where He is from, and [yet] He opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing, and does His will, He hears him. 32 Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, He could do nothing” (John 9:30-33).
The miracles and signs performed during Jesus’ earthly ministry pointed to His holiness, as did the events surrounding His death. The supernatural darkness for three hours and the rending of the veil of the temple (Luke 23:44-45), along with other factors, caused the crowds to go away shaken by what they saw and heard (Luke 23:46-48). One of the criminals crucified beside Jesus gave testimony to His innocence in his last moments of life and asked Jesus to remember him when He entered into His kingdom (Luke 23:36-43). One of the soldiers at the foot of the cross also gave testimony to the uniqueness (shall we say “holiness”?) of Jesus:
47 Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he [began] praising God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent” (Luke 23:47).
50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up [His] spirit. 51 And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, 52 and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:50-54).
The words spoken tauntingly by the crowds when Jesus was hanging on the cross have even more impact after His resurrection:
42 “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe in Him. 43 HE TRUSTS IN GOD; LET HIM DELIVER [Him] now, IF HE TAKES PLEASURE IN HIM; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (Matthew 27:42-43, emphasis mine).
I am fascinated by that little word “now.” They defied Jesus to come down from the cross immediately, thus avoiding death. If He would do this, they said, then they would believe in Him. How much more awesome is His rising from the dead! Which was the greater act, to come down from the cross, or to rise up from the grave? Jesus did the greater, and some did believe.
The implications of this resurrection are emphatically spelled out by the apostles as recorded in the Book of Acts, whether by Peter or by Paul:
23 This [Man], delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put [Him] to death. 24 And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. 25 For David says of Him, ‘I WAS ALWAYS BEHOLDING THE LORD IN MY PRESENCE; FOR HE IS AT MY RIGHT HAND, THAT I MAY NOT BE SHAKEN. 26 THEREFORE MY HEART WAS GLAD AND MY TONGUE EXULTED; MOREOVER MY FLESH ALSO WILL ABIDE IN HOPE. BECAUSE THOU WILT NOT ABANDON MY SOUL TO HADES, NOR ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY’ (Acts 2:23-27, emphasis mine).
32 “And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, 33 that God has fulfilled this [promise] to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘THOU ART MY SON; TODAY I HAVE BEGOTTEN THEE.’ 34 [And as for the fact] that He raised Him up from the dead, no more to return to decay, He has spoken in this way: ‘I WILL GIVE YOU THE HOLY [and] SURE [blessings] OF DAVID.’ 35 Therefore He also says in another [Psalm,] ‘THOU WILT NOT ALLOW THY HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY’” (Acts 13:32-35).
Peter and Paul not only proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus from the dead as the fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 16:10, they also proclaimed Him to be the “Holy One” of God, whom God would not allow to undergo decay because He was holy. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead not only vindicates Jesus’ claim to be Israel’s Messiah, it demonstrates Him to be the promised “Holy One” of God. The resurrection is the seal of approval on the holiness of Jesus Christ.
All too often we find ourselves thinking of Jesus now as He once was when He walked on this earth during His three-year public ministry. In truth, His resurrection from the dead changed Him so that He no longer possesses a merely earthly body but now is glorified by His transformed body. His glory and holiness are no longer veiled, so that the description of Jesus in the Book of Revelation is the description of Him as He now is and forever will be. The John who once walked with our Lord and even reclined on his breast (see John 13:23) now falls before Him as a dead man, overcome by His holiness and glory:
12 And I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me. And having turned I saw seven golden lampstands; 13 and in the middle of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed in a robe reaching to the feet, and girded across His breast with a golden girdle. 14 And His head and His hair were white like white wool, like snow; and His eyes were like a flame of fire; 15 and His feet [were] like burnished bronze, when it has been caused to glow in a furnace, and His voice [was] like the sound of many waters. 16 And in His right hand He held seven stars; and out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword; and His face was like the sun shining in its strength. 17 And when I saw Him, I fell at His feet as a dead man. And He laid His right hand upon me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, 18 and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. 19 Write therefore the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall take place after these things” (Revelation 1:12-19).
The story of Ananias and Sapphira is a familiar one to Christians. In the early days of the church, there was a great concern for the poor. When needs arose, saints would sell some of their possessions and lay the proceeds at the feet of the apostles for them to distribute (see Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-37). Ananias and Sapphira did likewise, but with a divided heart and in a deceptive way. They sold a piece of property but kept back a part of the proceeds for themselves. They gave the remainder of the money to the apostles as though it were the whole amount. When their sin was exposed to Peter, he confronted them, and both of them died. Great fear came upon the entire church, not to mention the rest of the community.
I have always concentrated on the fact that this couple lied, which they did. But in the context of studying the holiness of God, two additional details seem of more import than I had previously thought. First, these two lied to the Holy Spirit. Their deception was an offense to God’s holiness. It was also an act which could have had a leavening effect on the church itself (see also 1 Corinthians 5:6-7). Just as the generosity of Barnabas encouraged others to give in the same way, the half-hearted, deceptive act of Ananias and his wife could have adversely affected others in the church by encouraging them to do likewise. Remember that it is now the church that is the dwelling place of God upon the earth. God is holy, and thus His church must be holy as well. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was an affront to the holiness of God in His church.
Further, Luke includes a comment on the effect the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira had on the church and the community. A great fear came upon the whole church and on all who heard of this (Acts 5:11, 13). Unbelievers were prompted by their fear to keep their distance from the church, and the saints were motivated to keep their distance from the world (as far as its sins are concerned).
Fear is the response of men to the holiness of God. Thus, the sin of Ananias and his wife was a sin of irreverence, a sin against God’s holiness. But the outbreak of divine holiness which brought about the death of this couple also brought fear on those who heard of this incident.
A related text is found in 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul rebukes and admonishes the church because of the misconduct of some at the Lord’s Table. The church remembered the Lord by having communion as a part of a meal, just as we see the last supper (the Passover) described in the Gospels. Some were able to bring much food and drink to this potluck dinner while others could bring little or nothing. Some had the luxury of coming early, while others had to come later. Those who brought much and came early did not wish to wait or to share with the rest, so they over-indulged. In the process, some became drunk and disorderly so that the celebration of the Lord’s death was shameful, resembling the heathen celebrations of their pagan neighbors in Corinth.
Paul rebuked the Corinthians, not for partaking of the communion in an unworthy state but for partaking of it in an unworthy manner. “Unworthily” in the King James Version is rendered “in an unworthy manner” in the NASB. Both are an accurate representation of the adverb employed in the original text—not an adjective. Most Christians suppose Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for partaking of the bread and the cup as those who are “unworthy” (adjective) of it, rather than realizing he is forbidding the partaking of the bread and the cup in a manner that is unbefitting—“unworthily” (an adverb). No one is ever worthy of the body and blood of our Lord, but we can remember it in a fashion which is worthy and appropriate.
Paul further says that when the Corinthians eat the bread and drink the cup “unworthily,” they are guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:27), and in so doing they do not “judge the body rightly” (verse 29). He goes on to explain that this kind of conduct at the Lord’s table has brought about the sickness of some and the death of others (verse 30).
As I understand Paul’s words, the sin of the Corinthians at the Lord’s Supper was irreverence. The body of our Lord—His physical body and blood—are holy. He was a sinless sacrifice dying in our place. The body of our Lord is also the church, and it too is to be holy. By conducting themselves in a drunk and disorderly manner at the Lord’s Supper, the church showed a disregard for Christ’s physical body and His spiritual body, the church. This irreverence so offended God He struck some with illness and others with death. Irreverence in worship is both a failure to grasp God’s holiness and an affront to His holiness. Irreverence is a sin of great magnitude with dreadful consequences. The holiness of God requires us to take our worship seriously and not to participate frivolously. This does not mean our worship must be joyless, solemn and somber. It simply means we must regard God’s presence seriously and be very cautious about offending His presence by our irreverence.
The holiness of God is not simply a doctrine to which we give assent. Rather, the doctrine of the holiness of God should guide and govern our lives.
(1) The holiness of God should guide and govern our thinking on “God’s acceptance.”
I often hear Christians use the expression “unconditional acceptance.” It seems this term is first applied to God and then to the saints. “God unconditionally accepts us,” they reason, “and so we must accept others unconditionally.” My difficulty is that this is not a biblical expression. Perhaps even worse, it does not appear to be a biblical concept. God does not “accept us regardless” of what we do. Look at the nation Israel. Because of their persistent sin, God said they were no longer His people (see Hosea 1). God did not accept Cain or his offering (Genesis 4:5). God accepts us only through the shed blood of Jesus Christ so that even Christians are not unconditionally accepted, regardless of their attitudes and actions. The holiness of God indicates God does not accept what is not holy. In reality, all God accepts from us is that which He produces in and through us. To speak too glibly about unconditional acceptance appears to encourage careless and disobedient living.
The church cannot “accept” those who profess to be Christians but live like pagans (1 Corinthians 5:1-13). We must discipline and remove those who refuse to live like Christians. The church is to be holy, and this means purging out the “leaven” from its midst. Let those who emphasize unconditional acceptance ponder these words:
14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: The Amen, the faithful and true Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God, says this: 15 ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot. 16 ‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth’” (Revelation 3:14-16).
(2) The doctrine of the holiness of God needs to considered when we speak of accountability.
The concept of “accountability” has, in my opinion, been imported from the secular world. I am not entirely opposed to accountability, except that the church sometimes speaks more of accountability to men than of accountability to God. Let us not forget to whom we must give account:
36 “And I say to you, that every careless word that men shall speak, they shall render account for it in the day of judgment” (Matthew 12:36).
17 Obey your leaders, and submit [to them]; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you (Hebrews 13:17, emphasis mine; see also 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
12 So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God (Romans 14:12).
4 And in [all] this, they are surprised that you do not run with [them] into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign [you]; 5 but they shall give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead (1 Peter 4:4-5).
(3) The holiness of God should govern our thinking about self-esteem.
I was struck by this statement made by a psychologist at the beginning of this century, which is so different from what we are now being told:
“This reverence has been significantly defined by the psychologist William McDougall as ‘the religious emotion par excellence; few merely human powers are capable of exciting reverence, this blend of wonder, fear, gratitude, and negative self-feeling.”27
Why do we speak (at best) of finding our self-esteem in Christ when Isaiah’s encounter with the holiness of God caused him to say,
5 “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.” (Isaiah 6:5)?
I fear our whole orientation is wrong, and we come to Christ to feel better about ourselves rather than falling before Him in humility and awe at His holiness. Our hearts should be filled with gratitude and praise for the grace He has bestowed on us. It is the self-righteous who stand upright before God confident in who they are, not the saints who are confident in who He is (see Luke 9-14).
“Hence that dread and amazement with which as Scripture uniformly relates, holy men were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God.… Men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.”28
(4) The holiness of God should caution us about what we accept and practice from the contemporary “church growth” movement.
The contemporary church growth movement is to be commended in some respects.29 It seems, however, that in its attempt to evangelize the “seekers” by being “seeker-friendly,” it fails to take the holiness of God seriously enough. I will mention just a few of my concerns. How can a church focus its principle service (Sunday morning) on evangelism when its principle tasks seem to be otherwise, as outlined in Acts 2:42 (namely the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer)? Put differently, how can the church focus on evangelism in its gathering when its principle tasks appear to be worship and edification? Further, how can one invite the unbeliever to participate in worship as an unbeliever? The Bible teaches there are no “seekers” as such (Romans 3:10-12). Those who will be saved are those who are chosen, whose hearts the Holy Spirit will quicken, whose minds He will enlighten. Those who are dead in their sins, He makes alive (Ephesians 2:1-7).
No one whom God has chosen and in whom the Spirit is at work can fail to come to Him, so why the need to woo the lost to come to church? Those who were being saved joined the church in the Book of Acts, and those who were not kept their distance. With all this emphasis on church growth, there seems to be little attention given to church reduction by discipline and little devotion to proclaiming and practicing the holiness of God. When God struck Ananias and Sapphira dead, unbelievers did not flock to church, but all came to fear God and rightly so. If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, then the holiness of God must not be ignored. God’s holiness will drive some away, but it will drive the elect to the cross.
As I study Isaiah 6 and 2 Corinthians 2-7 among other texts, I find that Isaiah and Paul both had a deep awareness of the holiness of God. This knowledge caused them to be God-pleasers rather than man-pleasers (see Galatians 1:10). Paul would not water down his message nor employ methods inappropriate to the gospel and irreverent in regard to the holiness of God. Men chosen of God and saved by God do not need saving by marketing methods. The church that has a grasp of the holiness of God will proclaim, practice, and protect a pure gospel.
(5) A grasp of the holiness of God should change our attitude and conduct in worship.
In the Old Testament, worship was closely regulated. In the New Testament, more freedom seems to be given in worship. The priesthood of a few in the Old Testament has become the priesthood of all believers in the New. But Acts 5 and 1 Corinthians 5 and 11 strongly warn us about worship that fails to take the holiness of God seriously enough. Irreverence is a most serious offense, as we can see from both the Old and New Testaments. And worship is one area where irreverence is a constant concern. I am distressed by those who, in the enthusiasm and excitement of their worship, transgress very clear instructions to the church regarding worship. One case in point is the biblical teaching on the role women can play in the church meeting. Also, Uzzah seems to have been both sincere and zealous in his role in bringing the ark of God to Jerusalem, yet God struck him dead for his irreverence. Moses was kept from the land of promise because of his irreverence and his failure to obey God precisely as he had been instructed. This leads to the next observation.
9 Worship the LORD in holy attire [or, in the splendor of holiness]; Tremble before Him, all the earth (Psalms 96:9).
(6) The appropriate response to the holiness of God is fear (reverence), and the outworking of fear is obedience.
As I look at the Scriptures that speak of the holiness of God and the fear it should produce in the hearts of men, I find a very strong correlation between fear (or reverence) and obedience. For example, the wife is to respect (literally fear) her husband in Ephesians 5:33. The submission of the wife to her husband most often is expressed by her obedience to him (see 1 Peter 3:5-6). Fear or reverence leads to obedience. The same correlation is seen in 1 Peter 2:13-25 and Romans 13:1-7 with respect to citizens and governing authorities and slaves and their masters.
The fear of the Lord is the result of grasping His holiness. So too it is the source of much that is good. Fear is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). It causes us to hate and to avoid evil (8:13; 16:6). It is also the basis for strong confidence (14:26). It is a fountain of life (14:27). The holiness of God is the root of many wonderful fruits, springing forth from a heart which has come to reverence God as the Holy One.
(7) The holiness of God is the basis and the compelling necessity for our sanctification.
The holiness of God is the reason we too are commanded to live holy lives:
14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts [which were yours] in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all [your] behavior; 16 because it is written, “YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.” 17 And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay [upon earth]; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, [the blood] of Christ (1 Peter 1:14-19).
Because God is holy, we who are His people must be holy too. Holiness is our calling (Ephesians 1:4; Romans 8:29; 1 Thessalonians 4:3). We must practice and proclaim His excellencies to the world (1 Peter 2:9), and prominent among God’s excellencies is His holiness.
(8) The holiness of God makes the gospel a glorious necessity.
As I think of the holiness of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ (not to exclude the Holy Spirit), I am all the more awe-struck by the cross of Calvary. I have often thought of the agony of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemene. Usually, I think of His agony in terms of His horror at the thought of enduring the wrath of the Father, the wrath we deserve. But this study of the holiness of God has impressed me with the revulsion which a holy God has toward sin—toward our sin. And yet, despising sin as a holy God must, the Lord Jesus took all the sins of the world upon Himself as He went to Calvary. Jesus was not only agonizing over the wrath of the Father, He was agonizing over the sin He would bear on our behalf. What a wonderful Savior!
From my understanding of church history, revivals have been closely associated with a renewed and enhanced awareness of the holiness of God, accompanied with a heightened conviction of personal sin. If the holiness of God accomplishes in our lives what it did in the lives of those men like Isaiah whom we read of in the Bible, we will become increasingly aware of the depth of our own sin and our desperate need for forgiveness. Without holiness, we cannot enter into God’s heaven. In His holiness, God made a provision for our sins. By His sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins, and thereby made it possible for us to partake of His holiness. When we acknowledge our sin, our unrighteousness, and trust in Christ’s death on our behalf, we are born again. Our sins are forgiven. Our unholiness is cleansed. We become a child of God.
Easter Sunday is the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It can be a time when you come to life from the dead as well, if you but place your trust in Him.
1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly [places], in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:1-7).
21 R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985), p. 40.
22 Ibid., p. 54
23 Ibid., p. 55.
24 Ibid., p. 57.
25 Ibid., p. 57.
26 The relationship between fear (or reverence) and obedience is indicated in the New Testament as well as the Old. In 1 Peter 1, Peter calls upon the saints to live in fear of God (1:17). In chapter 2, fear (reverence or respect) is the root of obedience to kings, to cruel slave masters, and obedience to harsh husbands (3:1-6; see also Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:33). Irreverence is the root of disobedience.
27 William McDougall, An Introduction to Social Psychology (New York: Methuen, 1908), p. 132, cited by Kenneth Prior, The Way of Holiness (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, rev. ed., 1982), p. 20.
28 John Calvin, as cited by R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, p. 68.
29 See Os Guiness, Dining With The Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1993), pp. 21-24, for some of the positive contributions of the movement. The rest of the book deals with its critical deficiencies.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
6. The Righteousness of God
The righteousness of God, one of the most prominent attributes of God in the Scriptures, is also one of the most elusive. Initially, distinguishing the righteousness of God from His holiness or His goodness seems difficult. In addition, the righteousness of God is virtually synonymous with His justice:
While the most common Old Testament word for just means ‘straight,’ and the New Testament word means ‘equal,’ in a moral sense they both mean ‘right.’ When we say that God is just, we are saying that He always does what is right, what should be done, and that He does it consistently, without partiality or prejudice. The word just and the word righteous are identical in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Sometimes the translators render the original word ‘just’ and other times ‘righteous’ with no apparent reason (cf. Nehemiah 9:8 and 9:33 where the same word is used). But whichever word they use, it means essentially the same thing. It has to do with God’s actions. They are always right and fair.
God’s righteousness (or justice) is the natural expression of His holiness. If He is infinitely pure, then He must be opposed to all sin, and that opposition to sin must be demonstrated in His treatment of His creatures. When we read that God is righteous or just, we are being assured that His actions toward us are in perfect agreement with His holy nature.30
These words by Richard Strauss bring us very close to a concise definition of righteousness. Righteousness, in relation to men, is their conformity to a standard. Unlike men, God is not subject to anything outside of Himself. No one states this better than A.W. Tozer:
It is sometimes said, ‘Justice requires God to do this,’ referring to some act we know He will perform. This is an error of thinking as well as of speaking, for it postulates a principle of justice outside of God which compels Him to act in a certain way. Of course there is no such principle. If there were it would be superior to God, for only a superior power can compel obedience. The truth is that there is not and can never be anything outside of the nature of God which can move Him in the least degree. All God’s reasons come from within His uncreated being. Nothing has entered the being of God from eternity, nothing has been removed, and nothing has been changed.
Justice, when used of God, is a name we give to the way God is, nothing more; and when God acts justly He is not doing so to conform to an independent criterion, but simply acting like Himself in a given situation. . . God is His own self-existent principle of moral equity, and when He sentences evil men or rewards the righteous, He simply acts like Himself from within, uninfluenced by anything that is not Himself.” 31
We must then say the righteousness of God is evident in the way He consistently acts in accord with His own character. God always acts righteously; His every action is consistent with His character. God is always consistently “Godly.” God is not defined by the term “righteous,” as much as the term “righteous” is defined by God. God is not measured by the standard of righteousness; God sets the standard of righteousness.
23 And Abraham came near and said, “Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep [it] away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are [treated] alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” 26 So the LORD said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account.” 27 And Abraham answered and said, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am [but] dust and ashes. 28 Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, wilt Thou destroy the whole city because of five?” And He said, “I will not destroy [it] if I find forty-five there” (Genesis 18:23-28).
The righteousness of God is introduced very early in the Bible in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. This attribute is the basis for Abraham’s appeal to God for the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God is described anthropomorphically (in human-like terms) here as having heard the “great outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah” (verse 20). I wonder from whom this outcry came. One likely possibility is “righteous Lot, whose righteous soul was vexed by the wickedness of these cities” (see 2 Peter 2:6-8).
In the judicial terminology of our day, God was unwilling to act solely on the basis of hearsay. It was His intention to “go down” to this place and find out for Himself whether these allegations were true. Now of course we know God is omniscient. He knows all. He did not need to “take a trip to Sodom and Gomorrah” to see if these cities were really wicked. He knew they were wicked. But, from our point of view, God wants us to know He acts justly. He acts on the basis of information of which He has personal knowledge. Thus, when God judges these cities, He does so justly for they were truly wicked.
I find it interesting that verses 17-21 precede the account of Abraham’s intercession for these cities. God knew what He was going to do. What He purposed to do was righteous and just. But God wanted Abraham to be a part of what He was doing. If God was to act justly, He was simply acting consistently with His character. But involving Abraham was also consistent with His covenant with him and the goal of this covenant. God’s purpose for calling Abraham and making a covenant with him is spelled out in verses 17-19:
17 And the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, 18 since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? 19 For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the LORD may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Genesis 18:17-19, emphasis mine).
God’s purpose for calling Abraham and making a covenant with him was for Abraham to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice and to teach his offspring to do likewise. Righteousness is the divine goal for Abraham and his offspring.
When God informed Abraham He was about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham began to intercede for them. His concern was for the righteous in those cities. How could God possibly destroy these cities if there were righteous men and women living in them? If God destroyed both the wicked and the righteous without distinguishing them, then God would not be acting righteously or justly. And surely God, as “the Judge of all the earth,” must act justly (verse 25).
Abraham proceeds to intercede with God on behalf of the righteous. Beginning with 50 righteous, Abraham petitioned God not to destroy these cities if 50 righteous could be found. Eventually, Abraham was able (so it seemed) to lower the required number of the righteous to as few as ten (verse 32). But there simply were not ten righteous in these cities. There were but four (if one includes Lot’s wife). But God, in His justice, would not deal with the wicked in a way that punished the righteous as well. He did not spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but He did spare Lot and his family by rescuing them from the city of Sodom before the angels destroyed them.
We see here in the Book of Genesis God’s purpose in calling Abraham and his offspring: to raise up a people characterized by righteousness and justice. God not only showed himself to be righteous and just, He also worked in Abraham’s life to show he was a man who loved righteousness and justice.
God’s righteousness was to be seen in His every dealing with the nation Israel:
6 Then Samuel said to the people, “It is the LORD who appointed Moses and Aaron and who brought your fathers up from the land of Egypt. 7 So now, take your stand, that I may plead with you before the LORD concerning all the righteous acts of the LORD which He did for you and your fathers” (2 Samuel 12:6-7).
God’s righteousness in His dealings with the nation Israel has various manifestations.
(1) God reveals His righteousness by revealing His will and His word to the world through the nation Israel.
5 “See, I have taught you statutes and judgments just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should do thus in the land where you are entering to possess it. 6 So keep and do [them], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him? 8 Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8; see also Psalm 33:4).
God deals with men on the basis of what He has revealed to them. He often tells men what He will do well in advance of the event so they will know God is God and that He has accomplished what He promised:
21 “Declare and set forth [your case;]. Indeed, let them consult together. Who has announced this from of old? Who has long since declared it? Is it not I, the LORD? And there is no other God besides Me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none except Me” (Isaiah 45:21).
What God has not revealed does not need to be known (see Deuteronomy 29:29). All that is necessary for “life and godliness” has been revealed to us (see 2 Peter 1:4) so that we are fully equipped (2 Timothy 3:14-17).
(2) God reveals His righteousness by instructing men in His word.
8 Good and upright is the LORD; Therefore He instructs sinners in the way (Psalm 25:8).
Often this instruction came through the levitical priests (Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 24:8; Nehemiah 8:9; 2 Chronicles 17:7-9) or through the prophets like Moses (Deuteronomy 4:1, 5, 14; Exodus 18:20).
(3) God reveals His righteousness by fulfilling His promises.
8 “And Thou didst find his heart faithful before Thee, and didst make a covenant with him to give [him] the land of the Canaanite, of the Hittite and the Amorite, of the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite—to give [it] to his descendants. And Thou hast fulfilled Thy promise, for Thou art righteous” (Nehemiah 9:7-8, emphasis mine).
(4) God reveals His righteousness by judging the enemies of Israel.
27 Then Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron and said to them, “I have sinned this time; the LORD is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones” (Exodus 9:27).
13 Before the LORD, for He is coming; For He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, And the peoples in His faithfulness (Psalm 96:13).
God likewise shows Himself to be righteous when He judges the nation Israel for their sin and disobedience:
1 It took place when the kingdom of Rehoboam was established and strong that he and all Israel with him forsook the law of the LORD. 2 And it came about in King Rehoboam’s fifth year, because they had been unfaithful to the LORD, that Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem 3 with 1,200 chariots and 60,000 horsemen. And the people who came with him from Egypt were without number: the Lubim, the Sukkiim, and the Ethiopians. 4 And he captured the fortified cities of Judah and came as far as Jerusalem. 5 Then Shemaiah the prophet came to Rehoboam and the princes of Judah who had gathered at Jerusalem because of Shishak, and he said to them, “Thus says the LORD, ‘You have forsaken Me, so I also have forsaken you to Shishak.’” 6 So the princes of Israel and the king humbled themselves and said, “The LORD is righteous” (2 Chronicles 12:1-6).
15 “O LORD God of Israel, Thou art righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant, as [it is] this day; behold, we are before Thee in our guilt, for no one can stand before Thee because of this” (Ezra 9:15).
7 “Righteousness belongs to Thee, O Lord, but to us open shame, as it is this day—to the men of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and all Israel, those who are near by and those who are far away in all the countries to which Thou hast driven them, because of their unfaithful deeds which they have committed against Thee. 8 Open shame belongs to us, O Lord, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against Thee” (Daniel 9:7-8).
(5) God reveals His righteousness in the way He rules.
6 Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Thy kingdom (Psalm 45:6).14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of Thy throne; Lovingkindness and truth go before Thee (Psalm 89:14, see also Psalm 97:2).
(6) God reveals His righteousness in His hatred and in His anger.
5 The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, And the one who loves violence His soul hates (Psalm 11:5).311 God is a righteous judge; And a God who has indignation every day (Psalm 7:11).32
(7) God reveals His righteousness in His protection of the poor and the afflicted.
12 I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, And justice for the poor (Psalm 140:12; see also Psalm 12:5; 82; 116:6 below).
(8) God reveals His righteousness when He shows mercy and compassion.
5 Gracious is the LORD, and righteous; Yes, our God is compassionate; 6 The LORD preserves the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me (Psalm 116:5-6).
18 Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you, And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. The LORD is a God of justice; How blessed are those who long for Him (Isaiah 30:18).
(9) God reveals His righteousness in saving sinners.
2 The LORD has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. 3 He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God (Psalm 98:2-3). 11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:11).
I believe this to be a very significant aspect of God’s righteousness. God is righteous in saving sinners. So often we think God’s righteousness is revealed in His judgment of sinners and His mercy by His salvation of sinners. The Scriptures teach that God’s righteousness is the cause of both condemnation and justification. He is righteous in saving sinners, as well as merciful and compassionate. God is righteous in all His dealings with men, indeed in all His dealings.
The righteousness of God and the justice of God are not secondary matters; they are primary. The righteousness or justice of God is to be the guiding principle for the people of God. When the Old Testament prophets sought to sum up the essence of the Old Testament teaching regarding man’s conduct, it was that men practice righteousness or justice:
21 “I hate, I reject your festival, Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. 23 Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
6 With what shall I come to the LORD And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? 7 Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8).
When summarizing the very essence of what the Old Testament Law was about, Amos and Micah both spoke first of justice and righteousness. God is not interested in a legalistic keeping of the Law, as though one might make himself righteous by so doing. God is interested in men seeking to know the heart of God and pleasing Him by doing that in which He delights and that which He does.
If righteousness and justice are the heart of the Old Testament Law, they are also at the heart of the dispute between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees.33 At the very outset of His earthly ministry, Jesus set out to contrast His interpretation of the Old Testament teaching on righteousness with that of the scribes and Pharisees. In reality, Jesus did not offer a “new” interpretation of righteousness or of the Law; rather He sought to reestablish the proper understanding of righteousness as taught in the Law and the Prophets. Thus, Jesus repeatedly used the formula, “You have heard it said. . .” (“This is what the scribes and Pharisees teach.…”), “But I say to you.…” (“But the Old Testament was meant to be understood this way.…”).
The scribes and Pharisees thought of themselves as setting the standard for righteousness. They felt that they, of all men, were righteous. Jesus shocked all when He said,
20 “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
It was clear that if the scribes and Pharisees could not produce enough righteousness on their own, no one could. The standard of righteousness the Law held forth was even higher than that of the scribes and Pharisees. No one was righteous enough to get into heaven. What a shock to the self-righteous who thought they had box office seats in the kingdom.
If Jesus shocked His audience when He said those who appeared to be the most righteous would not make it into the kingdom on their kind of righteousness, He also shocked them as to who would be “blessed” by entrance into the kingdom: those the scribes and Pharisees thought unworthy of the kingdom. Those blessed were not the scribes and Pharisees, but the “poor in spirit,” those who “mourn,” the “gentle,” those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” the “merciful,” the “pure in heart,” the “peacemakers,” and those who are “persecuted” on account of their relationship with Jesus (Matthew 5:3-12).
Jesus taught that true righteousness is not that which men regard as righteous based upon external appearances, but that so judged by God based upon His assessment of the heart:
15 And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).
The Scribes and Pharisees, who thought themselves so righteous because of their rigorous attention to external matters, proved to be just the opposite when judged by our Lord:
28 “Even so you too outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. 29 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Consequently you bear witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up then the measure of the guilt of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell? 34 Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, 35 that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar” (Matthew 23:28-35).
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against externalism and ceremonialism.
1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 6:1).
According to Jesus, true righteousness is vastly different from the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. False righteousness is measured by men on the basis of externalism. True righteousness is judged such by God, in accordance with His Word. Because of this, men need to beware of attempting to judge the righteousness of others (see Matthew 7:1). Those whose deeds seemed to indicate they were righteous were those whom God denied ever having known as His children (Matthew 7: 15-23). Those who appeared to be righteous were not, and those who appeared unrighteous by the Judaism of that day may well have been righteous.
It is no wonder then that Jesus was not regarded as righteous by many of the Jews but was considered a sinner:
16 Therefore some of the Pharisees were saying, “This man is not from God, because He does not keep the Sabbath.” But others were saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And there was a division among them.… 24 So a second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, “Give glory to God; we know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He therefore answered, “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see” (John 9:16, 24-25).
The great division which arose among the Jews was over the issue of whether Jesus was a righteous man or a sinner (see John 10:19-21).
The Old and New Testament leave no doubt in our minds whether the Lord Jesus was righteous. The prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming Messiah as the “Righteous One” who would “justify the many” (Isaiah 53:11). Jeremiah spoke of Him as the “righteous Branch” (Jeremiah 23:5). When Jesus was baptized, it was to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Both Pilate’s wife (Matthew 27:19) and the soldier at the foot of the cross (Luke 23:47) acknowledged His righteousness at the very moment when men were condemning Him.
The apostles likewise bear witness to the righteousness of Christ:
1 My little children, I am writing these things to you that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1).
29 If you know that He is righteous, you know that everyone also who practices righteousness is born of Him (1 John 2:29).
The righteousness of God is particularly important in relation to salvation. In Romans 3, Paul points out God not only justifies sinners (that is, He declares them righteous), but He is also shown to be just (righteous) in the process:
21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law (Romans 3:21-28).
Men have failed to live up to the standard of righteousness laid down by the Law (Romans 3:9-20). God is just in condemning all men to death, for all men without exception have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). All men are worthy of death because the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). God is just in condemning the unrighteous.
But God is also just in saving sinners. As Paul puts it, He is “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26). How can this be? God is just because His righteous anger has been satisfied. Justice was done on the cross of Calvary. God did not reduce the charges against men; He did not change the standard of righteousness. God poured out the full measure of His righteous wrath upon His Son on the cross of Calvary. In Him, justice was meted out. All of those who trust in Him by faith are justified. Their sins are forgiven because Jesus paid the full price; He suffered the full measure of God’s wrath in their place. And for those who reject the goodness and mercy of God at Calvary, they must pay the penalty for their sins because they would not accept the payment Jesus made in their place.
The cross of Calvary accomplished a just salvation, for all who will receive it. But we also know that only those whom God has chosen—the “elect”—will repent and trust in the death of Christ on their behalf. This raises another question related to divine justice. After clearly teaching the doctrine of divine election, Paul asks how election squares with the justice of God, and then gives us the answer:
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. 9 For this is a word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? 22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles (Romans 9:6-24).
The question assumes that divine election has been taught by Paul as a biblical fact. If it were not so—as it clearly is—the question would not have been raised by Paul. And if there is no such thing as election, Paul could have simply brushed the question aside as illogical and unreasonable. But Paul assumes the truth of election and the possibility that some might object on the grounds that election would make God unjust. Paul first rebukes the one who dares to judge God and pronounce on His righteousness. How presumptuous can a man be? Should God stand before the bar of human judgment? Of course not!
As seen in chapter 3, God is righteous in that He has condemned all, and in Christ, those who are justified have been punished and then raised to newness of life. God is also righteous for judging all those who refuse to accept His offer of salvation in Christ. God would be unjust only if He set aside justice rather than fulfilling it in Christ, whether by His sacrificial death at His first coming or by His judging the unbelieving world at His second coming.
Divine grace, the grace by which God reaches out to save men from their sins, is meted out not on the basis of men’s merits but in spite of men’s sin. Grace, as we shall later emphasize in another message, is sovereignly bestowed. God would be unjust only if He withheld blessings from men which they deserved. Since God is free to bestow unmerited blessings on any sinner He may choose, God is not unrighteous in saving some of the worst sinners, while choosing not to save other sinners. God does not owe salvation to anyone, and thus He is not unjust in saving some and choosing not to save others.
The good news of the gospel is that salvation by grace is offered to all men, and by the righteousness of Jesus Christ, men may be forgiven of their sins and made righteous:
20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Corinthians 5:20-21).
If sin is the manifestation of our unrighteousness and we can be saved only through a righteousness not our own—the righteousness of Christ—then the ultimate sin is self-righteousness. Jesus did not reject sinners who came to Him for mercy and salvation; He rejected those who were too righteous (in their own eyes) to need grace. Jesus came to save sinners and not to save those righteous in their own eyes. No one is too lost to save; there are only those too good to save. In the Gospels, those who thought themselves most righteous were the ones condemned by our Lord as wicked and unrighteous.
If we are among those who have acknowledged our sin and trusted in the righteousness of Christ for our salvation, the righteousness of God is one of the great and comforting truths we should embrace. The justice of God means that when He establishes His kingdom on earth, it will be a kingdom characterized by justice. He will judge men in righteousness, and He will reign in righteousness.
We need not fret over the wicked of our day who seem to be getting away with sin. If we love righteousness, we most certainly dare not envy the wicked, whose day of judgment awaits them (see Psalm 37; 73). Their day of judgment is rapidly coming upon them, and justice will prevail.
If we realize that true righteousness is not to be judged according to external, legalistic standards and that judgment belongs to God, we dare not occupy ourselves in judging others (Matthew 7:1). We should also realize that judgment begins at the house of God, and thus we should be quick to judge ourselves and to avoid those sins which are an offense to the righteousness of God (see 1 Peter 4:17; 1 Corinthians 11:31).
The doctrine of the righteousness of God means that we, as the children of God (if you are a Christian), should seek to imitate our heavenly Father (5:48). We should not seek to find revenge against those who sin against us, but leave vengeance to God (Romans 12:17-21). Rather than seeking to get even, let us suffer the injustice of men, even as our Lord Jesus, that God might even bring our enemies to repentance and salvation (Matthew 5:43-44; 1 Peter 2:18-25). And let us pray, as our Lord instructed us, that the day when righteousness reigns may come:
10 “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
30 Richard L. Strauss, The Joy of Knowing God, (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, 1984), p. 140.
31 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, pp. 93-94.
32 When God is angry, He is also righteous. The Bible does not teach, “Do not be angry, and thus sin.” Rather it teachers there are times we should be angry (like God), but not let our anger lead to sin. There is a righteous anger, which is not sinful. Sometimes we sin by not becoming angry because of sin.
33 See, for example, Matthew 23; Luke 16:15; Philippians 3:1-11.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
7. The Wrath of God
Over 400 bikers recently gathered to pay their last respects to “Grandpa Bob.” Bob Shields, a founding member of the once-feared motorcycle gang known as the Bandidos, died of cancer at the age of 78. Middle age and older bikers gathered to drink beer and swap stories of the good old days of drug-running, assault, terrorism and murder, not to mention some legal sins. What caught my attention was the macho manner in which they attempted to deal with death and the reality of future judgment.
“Give ‘em hell, Grandpa,” one gray-bearded biker said. “The devil’s in the unemployment line now.” Lamont, another heavily tattooed gang member, is reported to have said, “Where he’s gone, that’s where we’re all going someday. He’s just waiting on us.”
“I don’t want no preachers ranting and raving over me,” he wrote. “Besides, I’m down below, drinking whiskey and . . . on the devil.”34
I do not know if these bikers believe there is a hell, but they certainly do not have a correct view of the wrath of God. Most people do not want to think of God’s wrath at all, preferring to think and speak of God’s love. Those who do believe God is a God of wrath as well as a God of love prefer to think of His wrath in the past tense. Many seem to believe God’s wrath is an Old Testament truth, and that with the coming of Christ, we are now safe to think only in terms of God’s love. This is wrong thinking about God. A. W. Pink observes:
It is sad to find so many professing Christians who appear to regard the wrath of God as something for which they need to make an apology, or at least they wish there were no such thing. While some would not go so far as to openly admit that they consider it a blemish on the Divine character, yet they are far from regarding it with delight; they like not to think about it, and they rarely hear it mentioned without a secret resentment rising up in their hearts against it. Even with those who are more sober in their judgment, not a few seem to imagine that there is a severity about the Divine wrath which is too terrifying to form a theme for profitable contemplation. Others harbor the delusion that God’s wrath is not consistent with His goodness, and so seek to banish it from their thoughts.
Yes, many there are who turn away from a vision of God’s wrath as though they were called to look upon some blotch in the Divine character, or some blot upon the Divine government. But what saith the Scriptures? As we turn to them we find that God has made no attempt to conceal the fact of His wrath. He is not ashamed to make it known that vengeance and fury belong unto Him.35
The wrath of God is not just taught in the Bible, it is a prominent truth in the Scriptures as A. W. Pink calls attention to in his book:
A study of the concordance will show that there are more references in Scripture to the anger, fury, and wrath of God, than there are to His love and tenderness.36
The wrath of God is an attribute of God as much a part of God as any other attribute, an attribute without which God would be less than God:
Now the wrath of God is as much a Divine perfection as is His faithfulness, power, or mercy. It must be so, for there is no blemish whatever, not the slightest defect in the character of God; yet there would be if ‘wrath’ were absent from Him!37
If we are going to discuss the wrath of God, we must first define it. Pink, one of the students of the attributes of God, defines God’s wrath this way:
The wrath of God is His eternal detestation of all unrighteousness. It is the displeasure and indignation of Divine equity against evil. It is the holiness of God stirred into activity against sin. It is the moving cause of that just sentence which He passes upon evil-doers. God is angry against sin because it is a rebelling against His authority, a wrong done to His inviolable sovereignty. Insurrectionists against God’s government shall be made to know that God is the Lord. They shall be made to feel how great that Majesty is which they despise, and how dreadful is that threatened wrath which they so little regarded. Not that God’s anger is a malignant and malicious retaliation, inflicting injury for the sake of it, or in return for injury received. No; while God will vindicate His dominion as Governor of the universe, He will not be vindictive.38
J. I. Packer takes us to the dictionary for a definition of wrath:
‘Wrath’ is an old English word defined in my dictionary as ‘deep, intense anger and indignation’. ‘Anger’ is defined as ‘stirring of resentful displeasure and strong antagonism, by a sense of injury or insult’; ‘indignation’ as ‘righteous anger aroused by injustice and baseness’. Such is wrath. And wrath, the Bible tells us, is an attribute of God.39
Perhaps a more concise definition will suffice for the purpose of our study:
Divine wrath is God’s righteous anger and punishment, provoked by sin.
The Old Testament not only speaks of God’s wrath as one of His attributes, it speaks of His wrath as a part of God’s glory:
18 Then Moses said, “I pray Thee, show me Thy glory!” 19 And He said, “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” 20 But He said, “You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!” 21 Then the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; 22 and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.” 34:1 Now the Lord said to Moses, “Cut out for yourself two stone tablets like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets which you shattered. 2 So be ready by morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to Me on the top of the mountain. 3 And no man is to come up with you, nor let any man be seen anywhere on the mountain; even the flocks and the herds may not graze in front of that mountain.” 4 So he cut out two stone tablets like the former ones, and Moses rose up early in the morning and went up to Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, and he took two stone tablets in his hand. 5 And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. 6 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 33:18–34:7).
God’s wrath is not an embarrassment to Him. He need never be ashamed, like men, for losing His temper. God’s wrath is inseparably linked with His glory. God brings glory to Himself when He exercises His wrath.
God’s wrath is provoked when men rebel against His Word. After God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, He gave them His laws to guide and govern their conduct so they might be a holy people in whose midst He would dwell. In Deuteronomy 28:1-14, God described the blessings which would result from obedience to the covenant He made with them at Mount Sinai. Verses 15-68 provide a much more extensive and graphic description of His judgment as a consequence of breaking this covenant. In the context of Deuteronomy 28, it is clear that Israel will not keep His covenant and that they will be judged. God will not tolerate sin among His people any more than He will tolerate it in others. The Israelites were destined to drink deeply from the cup of God’s wrath.
Numerous instances can be seen in the Old Testament where God’s wrath is demonstrated. In Numbers 16, God’s wrath is poured out on Korah, Dathan, Abiram and some 250 others who rebelled against Moses as God’s appointed leader (verses 1-3). When summoned to appear, Dathan and Abiram refused, and their words indicate their rebellion was as much against God as it was against Moses:
12 Then Moses sent a summons to Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab; but they said, “We will not come up. 13 Is it not enough that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, but you would also lord it over us? 14 Indeed, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor have you given us an inheritance of fields and vineyards. Would you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up!” (Numbers 16:12-14, emphasis mine).
God promised to lead the Israelites out of their bondage in Egypt to a land of “milk and honey” (Exodus 13:5; see also Numbers 13:27). These rebels viewed Egypt, the place of their former bondage, as the land of “milk and honey” and the promised land as a barren wilderness and place of bondage. They also rejected Moses’ leadership and proposed a more democratic form of government. God seemed ready to destroy the entire nation (Numbers 16:20-21), but Moses and Aaron knew God better; thus, they petitioned God not to pour out His wrath on all, but only on those who were guilty of this rebellion (verse 22).
Moses then declared a means by which all would know those whom God had appointed to lead His people:
28 And Moses said, “By this you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these deeds; for this is not my doing. 29 If these men die the death of all men, or if they suffer the fate of all men, then the Lord has not sent me. 30 But if the Lord brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the Lord.”
31 Then it came about as he finished speaking all these words, that the ground that was under them split open; 32 and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, and their households, and all the men who belonged to Korah, with their possessions. 33 So they and all that belonged to them went down alive to Sheol; and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. 34 And all Israel who were around them fled at their outcry, for they said, “The earth may swallow us up!” 35 Fire also came forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who were offering the incense (Numbers 16:28-35).
Korah, Dathan, Abiram and all those who followed them were first burned to death and then given an ignoble burial in a way that had never happened before in history—the ground opened, swallowed them, and then closed over them. God thereby made it clear that Moses and Aaron were his appointed leaders, and at the same time demonstrated His righteous wrath upon those who rebelled against Him and the leaders whom He appointed.
In Old Testament times, God not only displayed His wrath toward rebellious Israelites, He also demonstrated His wrath against wicked pagans. He destroyed the inhabited earth by means of the flood (Genesis 6-9). He also destroyed the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). And after the exodus, He employed the nation Israel to destroy the wicked Canaanites for their sin, just as He had indicated earlier to Abraham:
12 Now when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and behold, terror and great darkness fell upon him. 13 And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. 14 But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve; and afterward they will come out with many possessions. 15 And as for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried at a good old age. 16 Then in the fourth generation they shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete” (Genesis 15:12-16).
1 “When the Lord your God shall bring you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and shall clear away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you, 2 and when the Lord your God shall deliver them before you, and you shall defeat them, then you shall utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them and show no favor to them. 3 Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. 4 For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will quickly destroy you. 5 But thus you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, and smash their sacred pillars, and hew down their Asherim, and burn their graven images with fire.… And you shall consume all the peoples whom the Lord your God will deliver to you; your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you” (Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 16; see also 20:16-18).
God indicated to Abraham that his descendants would be persecuted in Egypt for 400 years (although God did not name the place), and then He would bring them back to possess the land. The reason for the delay at least in part was to allow the iniquity of the Amorites to fill up. The Israelites were to be the instrument of God’s wrath toward these Canaanites. They were to show no mercy. They must not allow any of the Canaanites to live. This was for Israel’s own good. If allowed to live, the Canaanites would most certainly intermarry with the Israelites and also teach them to sin, duplicating the very sins for which God was pouring out His wrath upon them.
Often in the Old Testament Israel did experience God’s wrath as did the Gentiles. But there are a number of texts in the Old Testament which speak of a future wrath even greater than any seen before:
6 Wail, for the day of the Lord is near! It will come as destruction from the Almighty. 7 Therefore all hands will fall limp, And every man’s heart will melt. 8 And they will be terrified, Pains and anguish will take hold of them; They will writhe like a woman in labor, They will look at one another in astonishment, their faces aflame. 9 Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, Cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; And He will exterminate its sinners from it. 10 For the stars of heaven and their constellations Will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises, And the moon will not shed its light. 11 Thus I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud, and abase the haughtiness of the ruthless. 12 I will make mortal man scarcer than pure gold, And mankind than the gold of Ophir. 13 Therefore I shall make the heavens tremble, And the earth will be shaken from its place at the fury of the Lord of hosts In the day of His burning anger. 14 And it will be that like a hunted gazelle, Or like sheep with none to gather them, they will each turn to his own people, And each one flee to his own land. 15 Anyone who is found will be thrust through, and anyone who is captured will fall by the sword. 16 Their little ones also will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; Their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished (Isaiah 13:6-16).
If you are a careful student of the Scriptures, you may have noted that this great oracle of woe is pronounced against Babylon upon whom the “day of the Lord” will come. It may appear then that this prophecy is fulfilled in Old Testament times. Babylon is judged for the zeal with which this nation punished the nation Israel. Yet this imminent judgment of Babylon is but a foreshadowing of the great “day of the Lord,” which is yet future for the nation Israel and all the nations which have rebelled against God.
Those willing to accept that God is a God of wrath are sometimes eager for the wrath of God to be viewed as primarily an Old Testament matter which is no longer a threat for those who live today. They like to think that with the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the subject of wrath is largely a matter of past history. But this is simply not the case.
Since John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, we almost expect him to speak of divine wrath. But when John spoke of the wrath to come, he did so in relationship to the coming of the Christ. According to John’s teaching, divine wrath was related to the coming of Messiah in two ways. First, he spoke of Messiah coming to experience the wrath of God. Second, John spoke of Messiah as the One who would execute the wrath of God.
When John the Baptist first saw Jesus and recognized Him as the Messiah, He spoke of Him as the Sin-bearer who was to experience God’s wrath as the “Lamb of God.”
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming to him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
The expression, “the Lamb of God,” to which John referred has a rich Old Testament background. There was the “Passover lamb,” sacrificed at the time of Israel’s exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12), which was a prototype of our Lord (see 1 Corinthians 5:7). There were the other sacrificial lambs that were a part of Israel’s worship (see Genesis 22:8; Exodus 13:13; 29:39-41; 34:20; Leviticus 3:7, etc.). In particular, there is the “Lamb of God” described by Isaiah which is clearly a reference to the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ:
4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him. 7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living, For the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due? . . . 10 But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in His hand. 11 As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities (Isaiah 53:4-8, 10-11).
This prophecy speaks of the suffering of the Messiah as the Sin-bearer, the One on whom the sins of the world are laid and thus on whom the wrath of God is poured out. This enables us to understand why our Lord was so troubled by the knowledge that the time of His suffering and death drew near:
27 “Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify Thy name.” There came therefore a voice out of heaven: “I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The multitude therefore, who stood by and heard it, were saying that it had thundered; others were saying, “An angel has spoken to Him.” 30 Jesus answered and said, “This voice has not come for My sake, but for your sakes. 31 Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world shall be cast out. 32 And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” 33 But He was saying this to indicate the kind of death by which He was to die (Matthew 12:27-34).
Here is why the Lord could say in the Garden of Gethsemene, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death . . .” (Matthew 26:38), and why Luke could tell us our Lord’s sweat in the Garden became as “drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). Who more than our Lord knew the wrath of God toward sin and sinners? Yet He was obedient to the will of the Father to suffer that wrath in the sinner’s place.
Our Lord’s greatest suffering came because He was the object of the Father’s wrath. The great agony of our Lord is seen in these words recorded in the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 22 and then spoken by our Lord as He hung upon the cross:
46 “My God, My God, Why has Thou forsaken Me?” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46).
One of the most beautiful truths of the Bible for the sinner deserving God’s wrath is summed up by the theological term, propitiation. Propitiation speaks of the satisfaction of God’s holy wrath.
24 Being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:24-26).
2 And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
4 In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10).
In a chapter entitled, “The Heart of the Gospel,” J. I. Packer has this to say about propitiation in the context of his comments on Paul’s teaching in Romans 3 and 5:
The wrath of God against us, both present and to come, has been quenched. How was this effected? Through the death of Christ. ‘While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son’ ([Romans] 5:10). The ‘blood’—that is, the sacrificial death—of Jesus Christ abolished God’s anger against us, and ensured that His treatment of us for ever after would be propitious and favourable. Henceforth, instead of showing Himself to be against us, He would show Himself in our life and experience to be for us. What, then, does the phrase ‘a propitiation . . . by His blood’ express? It expresses, in the context of Paul’s argument, precisely this thought: that by His sacrificial death for our sins Christ pacified the wrath of God.40
Propitiation means God’s wrath has been appeased for all who have trusted in Jesus Christ. The good news of the gospel is that those who have placed their trust in the Lord Jesus as the “Lamb of God” are no longer under the sentence of divine wrath:
1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, that no one should boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:1-10).
9 For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).
9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
John the Baptist was the last Old Testament prophet and the one privileged to introduce Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. When John spoke of the coming Messiah, he spoke of His coming as the One who would execute divine wrath:
5 Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; 6 and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:5-12).
Although the primary purpose of our Lord’s first coming was not to execute the wrath of God, Jesus did reveal (God’s) wrath on several occasions. He was angered by the way the Jewish religious leaders had commercialized the worship at the temple, and thus He cleansed the temple of the money changers both at the beginning (John 2:13-17) and at the end (Matthew 21:12-13) of His public ministry. He also had some scathing words of rebuke for the scribes and Pharisees. The “woe’s” of this text are a pronouncement of divine wrath:
29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 and say, ‘If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Consequently you bear witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up then the measure of the guilt of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how shall you escape the sentence of hell? 34 Therefore, behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city, 35 that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 Truly I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.
37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. 38 Behold, your house is being left to you desolate! 39 For I say to you, from now on you shall not see Me until you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23:29-39).
There is something particularly significant about Jesus’ words in these verses which I had never noticed. Men not only become subject to the wrath of God for their own sin of rejecting Christ as the Messiah, they also become guilty for the sins of their predecessors. How can this be? The Old Testament saints looked forward to the coming of Messiah through whom God would make atonement for sin (see John 8:56). The Old Testament prophets spoke of the coming of Messiah (see Deuteronomy 18:15; Isaiah 52:13–53:12; Malachi 4). The scribes and Pharisees professed to honor these saints of old, and yet they denied the One in whom the saints put their trust. In this way, those who reject Christ as the Messiah disassociate themselves from the saints of old and identify themselves with those who rejected, persecuted, and even killed the saints and prophets of old. In rejecting Jesus as Messiah, they cast their vote with those who killed the righteous and thus became guilty of these past sins of unbelieving Jews as well as their own. Here is a thought worth pondering.
Jesus warned those who were inclined to judge on the basis of outward appearances (Luke 16:15). He cautioned them not to assume every earthly calamity is a manifestation of divine wrath and that those who suffer greatly must be guilty of great sin:
1 Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And He answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate? 3 I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
Disaster is not necessarily a manifestation of divine wrath (unless specifically indicated as such), just as prosperity should not be interpreted as proof of piety. Men’s suffering in this life is not necessarily proportionate to their blessings or suffering in eternity as the story of the rich man and Lazarus makes clear (see Luke 16:19-31).
Jesus warned of God’s future wrath upon sinners and taught that a day of wrath is coming which will surpass any previous instance of divine judgment. It will be a terrible day, unparalleled in human history:
15 “Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; 17 let him who is on the housetop not go down to get the things out that are in his house; 18 and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his cloak. 19 But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days! 20 But pray that your flight may not be in the winter, or on a Sabbath; 21 for then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall. 22 And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short” (Matthew 24:15-22).
48 “But if that evil slave says in his heart, ‘My master is not coming for a long time,’ 49 and shall begin to beat his fellow slaves and eat and drink with drunkards; 50 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour which he does not know, 51 and shall cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites; weeping shall be there and the gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:48-51; see also chapter 25).
20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then recognize that her desolation is at hand. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are in the midst of the city depart, and let not those who are in the country enter the city; 22 because these are days of vengeance, in order that all things which are written may be fulfilled. 23 Woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days; for there will be great distress upon the land, and wrath to this people, 24 and they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.
25 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:20-28).
This great future wrath of God is necessary and certain because men reject the provision God has made for sinners in the sacrificial death of Christ at Calvary:
16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the light, that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God . . . He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:16-21, 36).
The solution to the problem of sin and judgment is to repent, to acknowledge one’s sin and guilt, and to trust in the Lord Jesus who has borne the wrath of God in the sinner’s place.
18 “But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ should suffer, He has thus fulfilled. 19 Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; 20 and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, 21 whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time. 22 Moses said, ‘The Lord God shall raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren; to Him you shall give heed in everything He says to you. 23 And it shall be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people’” (Acts 3:18-23).
If men are to escape from the wrath of God, they must repent and trust in the One who bore God’s wrath on Mount Calvary. Those who reject God’s provision for forgiveness and salvation face the future outpouring of divine wrath, a judgment far greater than man has ever seen before. It is of this wrath that the Book of Revelation speaks:
12 And I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became like blood; 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind. 14 And the sky was split apart like a scroll when it is rolled up; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places. 15 And the kings of the earth nd the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; 16 and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come; and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:12-17).
1 And I heard a loud voice from the temple, saying to the seven angels, “Go and pour out the seven bowls of the wrath of God into the earth.” 2 And the first angel went and poured out his bowl into the earth; and it became a loathsome and malignant sore upon the men who had the mark of the beast and who worshiped his image. 3 And the second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became blood like that of a dead man; and every living thing in the sea died. 4 And the third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of waters; and they became blood. 5 And I heard the angel of the waters saying, “Righteous art Thou, who art and who wast, O Holy One, because Thou didst judge these things; 6 for they poured out the blood of saints and prophets, and Thou hast given them blood to drink. They deserve it.” 7 And I heard the altar saying, “Yes, O Lord God, the Almighty, true and righteous are Thy judgments.” 8 And the fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun; and it was given to it to scorch men with fire. 9 And men were scorched with fierce heat; and they blasphemed the name of God who has the power over these plagues; and they did not repent, so as to give Him glory. 10 And the fifth angel poured out his bowl upon the throne of the beast; and his kingdom became darkened; and they gnawed their tongues because of pain, 11 and they blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores; and they did not repent of their deeds (Revelation 16:1-11).
11 And I saw heaven opened; and behold, a white horse, and He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True; and in righteousness He judges and wages war. 12 And His eyes are a flame of fire, and upon His head are many diadems; and He has a name written upon Him which no one knows except Himself. 13 And He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood; and His name is called The Word of God. 14 And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. 15 And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. 16 And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS” (Revelation 19:11-16).
The wrath of God on the wicked is great. Men deserve it. And there is no escaping it. Men know that the outpouring of wrath is from God, a judgment on them for their sin. And yet not one person repents. The time for repentance is past. Those who chose to reject the sacrifice of Christ for their sins must now be judged according to their works. It is a terrible fate, but one which sinners richly deserve. Divine wrath is not just a phenomenon of the Old Testament; it is a certainty of biblical prophecy. Men are urged to take heed and repent while there is still time to escape the wrath of God by faith in Christ.
38 And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
30 “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent, 31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
The first and most obvious implication of the biblical doctrine of divine wrath is that sinners desperately need to repent of their sin and place their trust in Christ, who bore God’s wrath for their sin at Calvary. Let me make it more personal. Have your sins been forgiven, or is the wrath of God your fate? The solution is as simple as acknowledging your sin and trusting in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in your place.
6 But the righteousness based on faith speaks thus, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), 7 or ‘Who will descend into the ABYSS?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” 8 But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, 9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; 10 for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.”
Once we have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation, we have this confidence:
9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him (Romans 5:9).
The biblical doctrine of the wrath of God should motivate Christians to evangelize, to warn the lost of the impending wrath of God, and to urge them to be saved.
44 Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
11 Therefore knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men, but we are made manifest to God; and I hope that we are made manifest also in your consciences (2 Corinthians 5:11).
22 And have mercy on some, who are doubting; 23 save others, snatching them out of the fire; and on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment polluted by the flesh (Jude 1:22-23).
As we seek to evangelize, we do not do so in the manner of some who would seek to make the gospel more pleasing and palatable. We do not avoid the negative aspects of the gospel. We proclaim the whole gospel, seeking to please God rather than men (see 2 Corinthians 2:14-17; 4:1-2; 5:11; Galatians 1:6-10). We know He has promised to “convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment” (John 16:8-11), and thus our message must focus on sin, righteousness, and judgment just as Paul’s did (see Acts 17:30-31; 24:25).
The doctrine of the wrath of God is an incentive for the Christian to live a holy life. Our desire should be to please God (2 Corinthians 5:9), and this will be done as we pursue holiness and flee from sin:
3 But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints; 4 and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks. 5 For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not be partakers with them (Ephesians 5:3-7).
14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance, 15 but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; 16 because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each man’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay upon earth; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, 19 but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, he blood of Christ (1 Peter 1:14-19).
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. 11 Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! 13 But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. 14 Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless (2 Peter 3:10-14).
The wrath of God is a reminder of the holiness of God and a measure of God’s hatred of sin. God’s wrath is proportionate to the unrighteousness which provokes it. The immensity of God’s wrath toward sin is an indication of His holy hatred of sin. We should hate it as well.
The wrath of God should make us uncomfortable with sin. In addition, we should never forget that our sin resulted in the suffering and agony of our Savior on whom God’s wrath was poured out. To think lightly of sin is to take Christ’s suffering lightly. To sin willfully is to come dangerously close to crucifying afresh the Son of God (Hebrews 6:6).
The doctrine of the wrath of God instructs us not to fret over the wicked. While they may appear to be getting away with evil, they will come under the wrath of God:
16 When I pondered to understand this, It was troublesome in my sight 17 Until I came into the sanctuary of God; Then I perceived their end. 8 Surely Thou dost set them in slippery places; Thou dost cast them down to destruction. 19 How they are destroyed in a moment! They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors! 20 Like a dream when one awakes, O Lord, when aroused, Thou wilt despise their form (Psalm 73:16-20)..
17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).
9 Then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment (2 Peter 2:9).
Let us take the doctrine of God’s wrath seriously. Let us neither neglect nor conceal it. Let us regard it as a part of the goodness and glory of God. May the doctrine of God’s wrath be an incentive to evangelism and the proclamation of a pure gospel, which includes sin, righteousness, and judgment. To the glory of God and our own good, may this doctrine be the basis for holy living for each of us.
14 Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled; 16 that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal. 17 For you know that even afterwards, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place for repentance, though he sought for it with tears. 18 For you have not come to a mountain that may be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, 19 and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word should be spoken to them. 20 For they could not bear the command, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it will be stoned.” 21 And so terrible was the sight, that Moses said, “I am full of fear and trembling.” 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel. 25 See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less shall we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven. 26 And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth, but also the heaven.” 27 And this expression, “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, in order that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:14-29).
(1) Godly wrath is vastly different from the wrath of man (James 1:20).
(2) The wrath of God is always in accordance with the standards set down in Scripture for man’s conduct and the warnings God has given for disobedience (Deuteronomy 29:26-28; 30:15-20; 2 Samuel 12:9-10; 2 Kings 22:10-13; 24:2; 2 Chronicles 19:8-10; 34:18-28; 36:15-16; Jeremiah 22:11-12; 44:2-6).
(3) The wrath of God is in accordance with the deeds of men. God’s wrath is always in direct proportion to man’s sin (Psalm 28:4; Isaiah 59:18; Jeremiah 17:10; 21:14; 25:14; Ezekiel 20:44; 24:14; 36:19).
(4) God’s wrath is slow and controlled, not sudden and explosive (Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18).
(5) God’s wrath comes after warning of judgment (see, for example, the warnings given to men in the days of Noah (Genesis 6-9), of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), and throughout the Old Testament by the prophets).
(6) God’s wrath is always provoked by man’s sin (Deuteronomy 4:25; 9:18; Jeremiah 25:6-7; 32:32).
(7) God wrath is not exercised in sin but in righteousness (Romans 2:5; James 1:19-20).
34 “Bikers bid farewell to Bandido co-founder,” The Dallas Morning News, April 17, 1994, p. 12D.
35 A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God, (Swengel Pa.: Reiner Publications, 1968 [Reprint]), p. 75.
36 Ibid., p. 75.
37 Ibid., p. 75.
38 Ibid, p. 76.
39 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), p. 134.
40 Ibid., p. 165.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
8. The Grace of God
To illustrate the grace of God, I have often told the true story of my friend who bought a brand new Jaguar convertible upon returning as a veteran from Viet Nam. While still wearing his army fatigues, my friend set out early one morning driving down a lonely stretch of road in Oklahoma. Deciding to see just how fast his car would go, he allowed it to accelerate to its maximum speed. Just as he came to the crest of a small hill, he reached top speed. And there, just over the hill, out of sight until it was too late, was a highway patrolman with his radar. My friend knew it was all over, although it took him a mile or so to bring the car to a stop, where he sat waiting for the policeman to catch up with him.
The patrolman stopped his car and slowly proceeded to approach my friend, waiting with driver’s license in hand. “Do you have any idea just how fast you were going?” he asked. “Not exactly,” my friend sheepishly replied. “One hundred and sixty-three miles per hour,” the policeman responded. “That sounds about right to me,” my friend said.
My friend did not expect the patrolman’s next statement: “Would you mind if I took a look at that engine?” he asked. “Not at all,” my friend said. A half hour or so later, the two men finished a cup of coffee at a nearby coffee shop before the patrolman drove off, never having given my friend a ticket!
I used to say that if the officer paid for the coffee, this was grace.41 But it really is not the kind of grace of which the Bible speaks. In response to Moses’ request to see God’s glory (Exodus 33:18), God allowed Moses to see a portion of it:
5 And the Lord descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the Lord. 6 Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; 7 who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Exodus 34:5-7).
God’s glory is seen, in part, by His grace. He is gracious and compassionate (verse 6). But, in addition, God also does not leave the guilty unpunished (verse 7). God’s grace does not overlook sin; it punishes sin, but in a way which forgives those who are guilty.
I therefore must revise my illustration, adding a little fiction to more accurately describe the grace of God. As my friend broke over the top of that hill at 163 miles per hour, he slammed on the brakes, causing the car to go out of control, smashing into the police car, nearly destroying it and shaking up the police officer badly. Instead of letting my friend go, without a ticket, the officer must write out a ticket, and then pay the fine himself. He must not allow my friend to pay for anything—even the coffee. Now that would be grace, the kind of grace the Bible speaks of, the grace of God toward those who are saved.
Our lesson considers the grace of God, a subject so immense we could spend eternity trying to fathom it. Consequently, I will attempt to summarize some of the essential elements of God’s grace by calling your attention to three stories in the Bible which describe the grace of God. The first story is of Jacob and the grace of God (Genesis 25-32; Hosea 12:2-6), the second of Jonah and the grace of God, and the last is about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). In these three stories, we will encounter a man who finally ceases striving with God and men and casts himself on the grace of God (Jacob). We will consider a man who is a prophet, and yet he hates the grace of God (Jonah). And we will see a woman who is the recipient of God’s grace, while she stands condemned by some of her self-righteous peers (the woman of John 8:1-11).
Jacob and the Grace of God42
Jacob is not the first example of God’s grace, but he is one of the most striking examples in the Old Testament. It seems to have taken Jacob 130 years to begin to grasp what it means to live by the grace of God (see Genesis 47:9). There is one crucial turning point in Jacob’s life where he begins to rely upon the grace of God. It is that turning point, recorded in Genesis 32:22-32 and more carefully interpreted in Hosea 12:2-6, upon which I would like to focus our attention.
Even before his birth, Jacob was a man who struggled with others.
21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 But the children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is so, why then am I this way?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb; And two peoples shall be separated from your body; And one people shall be stronger than the other; And the older shall serve the younger.” 24 When her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. 25 Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. 26 And afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob; and Isaac was sixty years old when she gave birth to them (Genesis 25:21-26).
When the boys were grown, Jacob sought to get ahead by striving with his brother:
27 When the boys grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a peaceful man, living in tents. 28 Now Isaac loved Esau, because he had a taste for game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 And when Jacob had cooked stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; 30 and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished.” Therefore his name was called Edom. 31 But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 And Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?” 33 And Jacob said, “First swear to me”; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright (Genesis 25:27-34).
The final blow to the relationship between Jacob and Esau occurred when Jacob deceived his father into thinking he was Esau, thereby obtaining his father’s blessing (Genesis 27). In reality, it was Jacob who was to rule over Esau. Isaac seems to be trying to reverse the fact that Jacob would take the place of the first-born, just as God had indicated (Genesis 25:23). But Rebekah and Jacob were wrong in the way they obtained Isaac’s blessing. Once again, Jacob was striving with men and not in a way that commends him.
As a result of his deception, Esau was furious with Jacob, so his parents sent him to Paddan-aram to obtain a wife (Genesis 27:41–28:5). On his way, Jacob had a vision which indicated the land he was leaving was the “gate of heaven” (28:10-17). It was to serve as a strong incentive for Jacob to return and not stay permanently in Paddan-aram. After his dramatic vision, Jacob made a covenant with God, one which shows him still striving and failing to rest in God’s grace:
20 Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me on this journey that I take, and will give me food to eat and garments to wear, 21 and I return to my father’s house in safety, then the Lord will be my God. 22 And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, will be God’s house; and of all that Thou dost give me I will surely give a tenth to Thee” (Genesis 28:20-22).
Some might look at Jacob’s promise as a kind of “faith pledge.” I see it otherwise. Look at all the “if’s.” Jacob’s commitment to God is based on God’s performance in meeting Jacob’s needs, as Jacob defines them. If God: (1) protects him on his journey, (2) provides him with adequate food and clothing, and (3) brings him home safely to his father’s house, then Jacob will have the LORD as his God, and then he will give him a tithe. The order is just the opposite of what God requires of us. We are to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and then “all these things” (like food and clothing) will be added to us (Matthew 6:33). Consider how Jacob’s offer contrasts with these words from our Lord:
25 “For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25).
Jacob’s “deal” with God is one with which even Satan would agree:
9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 “Hast Thou not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But put forth Thy hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse Thee to Thy face” (Job 1:9-11).
And so we find the same old Jacob in Paddan-aram “serving” his uncle Laban. He is once again striving with men, seeking to get ahead at the expense of others. Not until after Jacob leaves Laban’s house and the land of Paddan-aram does he finally come to grips with grace. As Jacob is about to enter into the land of Canaan, he knows he must face his brother Esau, and this poses a considerable threat to his safety. A wrestling match with an angel of the LORD seems to be a significant turning point for Jacob:
22 Now he arose that same night and took his two wives and his two maids and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 And he took them and sent them across the stream. And he sent across whatever he had. 24 Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 And when he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” But he said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 And he said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him and said, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” 31 Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh. 32 Therefore, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip (Genesis 32:22-32).
From this account alone, it would be possible to reach the wrong conclusion. We might wrongly suppose that Jacob actually overpowered the angel (an amazing feat!) and that due to Jacob’s persistent striving with men (and God) over the years, he has finally prevailed. God is now at Jacob’s disposal.
But that is not the way it was. We know from the story that this “angel” was really God (verse 30). Could Jacob overpower God in a wrestling match? We know further that while the struggle appeared to be an even match, when the time came, the angel struck a crippling blow to Jacob by smiting his thigh so that his hip was dislocated (verse 25). Jacob is now in no position to bargain with God at all. The interpretation of this story is given centuries later by the prophet Hosea speaking to the nation Israel, whom Jacob personified.
1 Ephraim feeds on wind, And pursues the east wind continually; He multiplies lies and violence. Moreover, he makes a covenant with Assyria, And oil is carried to Egypt. 2 The Lord also has a dispute with Judah, And will punish Jacob according to his ways; He will repay him according to his deeds. 3 In the womb he took his brother by the heel, And in his maturity he contended with God. 4 Yes, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed; He wept and sought His favor. He found Him at Bethel, And there He spoke with us, 5 Even the Lord, the God of hosts; The Lord is His name. 6 Therefore, return to your God, Observe kindness and justice, And wait for your God continually (Hosea 12:1-6).
Wayward Israel is being rebuked by Hosea the prophet. They are about to be disowned by God for a period of time, the times of the Gentiles. They have not trusted in God nor have they obeyed His covenant with them. They, like the harlot Gomer, are reaping what they have sown. But there is a way back, a way to enter into God’s blessings, into His grace. That way is by humbly beseeching God for grace. This is what Hosea tells the nation Israel that Jacob had to do (remember that Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel” in Genesis 32:27-28). All of his life he had been striving with God and with men. He had been trying to get ahead by his own cunning, cheating, and effort. But when the angel struck the crippling blow to Jacob, he had no way to “force” the angel to bless him. All he could do was weep and beg for mercy (for God’s favor). Jacob finally learned how God’s blessings are granted to men—not by grabbing, but by grace. While Jacob quickly forgot this lesson (note how he will cling to his sons in Genesis 37-43), it was nevertheless a significant turning point, for at least once Jacob sought God’s blessing by grace.
Grace was the basis of God’s dealings with Israel as it was for His dealings with the Gentiles. When rightly understood, the Law was a gift of divine grace. Israel’s entrance into the blessings of God’s covenant was to be by grace (Deuteronomy 30:1-14). The other prophets spoke of God’s grace as the basis for His dealings with His people and the basis for Israel’s hope and praise (Isaiah 30:18-19; Jeremiah 3:12; Joel 2:12-14; Amos 5:15). As a prophet of God, one would expect Jonah to delight in the grace of God. Such is simply not the case.
In Jonah 1, the heathen sailors are gracious to Jonah as they try desperately to save his life at the risk of their own lives. They pray to God, concerned that they not take the life of an innocent man. But Jonah shows no grace toward them. He seems to care little that he has endangered their lives by his rebellion against God. They have to virtually drag the truth from him, that he indeed is a prophet of the one true God, the God who made the heavens and the earth.
In Jonah 2, God spares Jonah’s life by a means that appeared to be his destruction—a giant fish. Jonah was drowning. Only moments of life remained. Suddenly he was enveloped in darkness. Around him were slimy walls of flesh. The odor must have been ugly. He had been swallowed by a fish! It was an even slower death which seemed to await Jonah. And then he must have realized the fish was actually his salvation. While inside the fish, Jonah composed a prayer recorded in the second chapter of Jonah. A more careful look at Jonah’s prayer reveals it is really a poem. More precisely, it is a psalm. As we look at the marginal references in our Bible, we realize it is a psalm in which Jonah uses many terms and expressions found in the psalms.
However, this “psalm” is like the psalms of the Book of Psalms only in form and in vocabulary. It is not like any of the psalms of the Bible in terms of emphasis or theology. Jonah speaks too much of himself, of his experience, of his danger, of his agony. He speaks too little of God. He speaks of looking and praying toward God’s holy temple (verses 4, 7). He speaks in a derogatory manner of pagans and elevates himself in comparison:
8 “Those who regard vain idols Forsake their faithfulness, 9 But I will sacrifice to Thee With the voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:8-9).
What is missing is any reference to his own sin or any hint of repentance. This is especially interesting in that Jonah is in “captivity” as a result of his sin, and he does make reference to God’s temple. Consider, however, this text which very precisely outlines how a sinful Israelite is to repent:
36 “When they sin against Thee (for there is no man who does not sin) and Thou art angry with them and dost deliver them to an enemy, so that they take them away captive to a land far off or near, 37 if they take thought in the land where they are taken captive, and repent and make supplication to Thee in the land of their captivity, saying, `We have sinned, we have committed iniquity, and have acted wickedly’; 38 if they return to Thee with all their heart and with all their soul in the land of their captivity, where they have been taken captive, and pray toward their land which Thou hast given to their fathers, and the city which Thou hast chosen, and toward the house which I have built for Thy name, 39 then hear from heaven, from Thy dwelling place, their prayer and supplications, and maintain their cause, and forgive Thy people who have sinned against Thee” (2 Chronicles 6:36-39, emphasis mine).
Solomon not only indicates that an Israelite who is in a distant country may turn to God’s holy temple and pray for forgiveness, he also gives the very words a repentant Jew should use to express that repentance:
37 `We have sinned, we have committed iniquity, and have acted wickedly’ (verse 37).
When we look down the corridor of Israel’s history, those who truly repented for their sins and the sins of their nation followed this pattern set down by Solomon:
6 Let Thine ear now be attentive and Thine eyes open to hear the prayer of Thy servant which I am praying before Thee now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Thy servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against Thee; I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 “We have acted very corruptly against Thee and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which Thou didst command Thy servant Moses (Nehemiah 1:6-7).
33 “However, Thou art just in all that has come upon us; for Thou hast dealt faithfully, but we have acted wickedly. 34 For our kings, our leaders, our priests, and our fathers have not kept Thy law or paid attention to Thy commandments and Thine admonitions with which Thou hast admonished them” (Nehemiah 9:33-34).
5 We have sinned, committed iniquity, acted wickedly, and rebelled, even turning aside from Thy commandments and ordinances (Daniel 9:5).
Would anyone dare say Jonah’s “psalm” is an expression of repentance? He speaks of the Gentiles as sinners and of himself (and, by inference, all Jews) as righteous (Jonah 2:8-9). From Jonah 1, this is hard to defend. Jonah, the prophet, is acting like a pagan, while the pagan sailors are worshipping the God of Israel.
Some have pointed to the last words of Jonah’s pseudo-psalm as a last ditch expression of repentance:
9 “Salvation is from the LORD” (verse 9).
I think not, although I have only recently come to this conclusion. This statement, “Salvation is from the LORD,” is also a citation from the Psalms. Consider the more complete expression of this statement in Psalm 3:
6 I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people Who have set themselves against me round about. 7 Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God! For Thou hast smitten all my enemies on the cheek; Thou hast shattered the teeth of the wicked. 8 Salvation belongs to the Lord; Thy blessing be upon Thy people! Selah (Psalm 3:6-8).
Note especially the last words of verse 8, the words Jonah did not include but which I believe he implied. Jonah wanted God to save His people Israel and to condemn the Gentiles to hell (as chapter 4 makes very evident). His words in Psalm 2 express relief more than they express praise, they focus on Jonah more than on God, and they hope for the deliverance of the Jews but not the Gentiles. Remember that Jonah had been commanded to preach to the people of Nineveh and had refused! He did not want these unworthy Gentiles saved, only the worthy Jews.
Does this sound harsh? It is, and it is also true. That is what the Book of Jonah is all about. Jonah the rebellious, unrepentant prophet, is a picture of the nation Israel. He illustrates the refusal of the Jews to be a “light to the Gentiles,” to take the good news of God’s grace to the heathen. The Jews thought God had chosen them because they were better, more worthy, and that He had rejected the Gentiles, condemning them to eternal hell because they were not worthy of His blessings.
If Jonah were repentant, he would have turned around; he would have changed his heart and his actions, as the word repentance implies. This means that he would have immediately headed for Nineveh, where God had previously commanded him to go. Instead, chapter 3 begins with a repetition of this command. He is not going to Nineveh until God demands it, again. And so he reluctantly goes to Nineveh, where he proclaims the message God gave to him.43
If you want to see genuine repentance, do not look at Jonah; look at the Ninevites. The people of the city believed in God (verse 5) and began to fast. The entire population repented and demonstrated this by fasting. Even the cattle were included in this fast. The king, likewise, repented and fasted, which he appears to do without personally hearing Jonah but having heard his message second hand (see verse 6). The king called the fast, and he led the nation in repentance with a certain sense of confidence that God was gracious and that He might relent their destruction if they did repent. This has good biblical basis:
5 Then the word of the Lord came to me saying, 6 “Can I not, O house of Israel, deal with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. 7 At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; 8 if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it” (Jeremiah 18:5-8).
12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “Return to Me with all your heart, And with fasting, weeping, and mourning; 13 And rend your heart and not your garments.” Now return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness, And relenting of evil. 14 Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, And leave a blessing behind Him, Even a grain offering and a libation For the Lord your God?” (Joel 2:12-14).
And so God did relent of the evil He had threatened through Jonah, and the city was spared (3:10). This is where Jonah really gets steamed at God. Imagine this, Jonah, the prophet, warns men of God’s righteous wrath toward sinners, and this sinner Jonah is angry with God and not even reluctant to fully vent his anger Godward. I do not find God’s grace to the Ninevites so amazing as His grace to Jonah. He should have been a tiny little pile of human ashes by now, and yet here he is, shaking his fist in the face of his God. And God says to him so gently, “Do you have good reason to be angry?” (verses 4, 10).
Jonah’s prayer in chapter 4 is absolutely amazing. He protests against God on the basis of His grace, compassion, lovingkindness, and turning from calamity (verse 2). This is the only place in the Bible where a person protests against God rather than praises Him for these attributes. Such attributes are the essence of God’s glory according to Exodus 34:6. They become the basis for men’s intercession, requesting divine forgiveness for sinners (Numbers 14:18). They are the basis for men’s repentance (Deuteronomy 4:31; Joel 2:12-14) and the reason God perseveres with this stiff-necked people (Nehemiah 9:17, 31). They are the basis for God’s acts of salvation (Psalm 116:5) and forgiveness (Psalm 103:8-10). They are the motivation and basis for men’s praise of God (Psalm 111:4; 145:8). Yet Jonah finds these attributes repulsive and disgusting, the basis for protest to God.
As the story unfolds, we finally find Jonah happy. In spite of the fact that God has forgiven the Ninevites and called off the day of destruction, Jonah constructs a little booth outside the city, hoping God will still destroy it, and he will have the pleasure of watching it go up in smoke. In the intense heat (which Jonah had no reason to suffer), God graciously gave Jonah a plant to provide him with shade. And then God took the plant away, which made Jonah even more angry. God inquired of Jonah as to whether it was right for him to be angry regarding the plant. Jonah assured God he had every right.
For a long time I thought Jonah’s sin was that of selfishness and preoccupation with his own comfort. Finally, I have come to see what I think is the underlying message of this book. Jonah was angry about God’s grace. He was angry that God showed grace to the Ninevites. He was happy that God showed grace to him in the shade plant, but he became furious when God took it away. Jonah did not deserve that plant, and he most certainly did not earn it. It was a gift of God’s grace, and God could give it or, just as freely, take it away.
Jonah wanted God’s blessings. He expected God’s blessings. And he was angry when God took these blessings away or gave them to others. Jonah wanted God’s grace, but not as grace. He wanted the benefits and blessings of God, but as one who deserved them rather than as an unworthy sinner who did not deserve them. This is what angered Jonah about God’s dealings with the Ninevites. He had to admit this was grace, but he loathed grace. Grace humbles the recipient of God’s blessings. Grace indicates the unworthiness of the recipient. Jonah wanted to be blessed, but not on the grounds of grace.
Jonah’s problem is precisely that of the Jews, both then and now. Jonah was self-righteous. Self-righteous people do not want to confess their sins and beg God for grace. They think they are worthy of God’s blessings, and they are only angry when God does not jump through their hoops and fulfill all their desires. Jonah, like the Israelites of his day, and like the Jews of Jesus’ day, were self-righteous sinners who expected God’s blessings as though they were deserved, and they were angered whenever God showed grace to the unworthy. Jonah, like many then and now, loathed the grace of God.
2 And early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. 3 And the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the midst, 4 they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” 6 And they were saying this, testing Him, in order that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground. 7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 9 And when they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the midst. 10 And straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” 11 And she said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way. From now on sin no more” (John 8:2-11).
We know that when our Lord came to this earth, He was the personification of grace and truth (John 1:14). One incident in the life and ministry of our Lord tells us much about the grace which our Lord shows to men. While He was in the temple teaching, the scribes and Pharisees sought to embarrass Him by dragging before Him a woman who had just been caught in the act of adultery44—the “very act” (verse 4). Being self-righteous, these hypocrites were not worried about the wrath of God toward their own sin, because they looked upon others—such as this woman—as sinners. Since Jesus showed such compassion on sinners and since He spent so much time with them, the scribes and Pharisees sought to put Jesus in an impossible situation. They sought to make Him either look soft on sin or to take a hard line on sin and lose face with the people by putting this woman to death.
They reminded Him that the Law required this woman to die. They were right, of course, but it also required the death of the man (see Leviticus 20:10ff.; Deuteronomy 22:22ff.). They then demanded that He give His opinion as to what should be done with this woman. Would Jesus dare challenge the Law of Moses?
Jesus was more interested in the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees than in putting this woman to death. If sinners were to die (for the wages of sin is death—the soul that sinneth shall die), then let the sinless one throw the first stone. No one could quite work up the courage to claim sinlessness. No one dared claim to be righteous enough to pronounce judgment and begin the execution. And so all this woman’s accusers disappeared one by one, from the oldest to the youngest.
Jesus then spoke to the woman, asking her where her accusers were. She responded there were none left to accuse her. Jesus then said, “Neither do I condemn you; go your way; from now on sin no more.” It is clear from these words that this woman had sinned. Why then did our Lord not condemn her? He alone was “without sin.” He alone could have cast the first stone. Instead, He told her He did not condemn her and that she was to go her way, but not to continue her life of sin.
Why could the Lord Jesus do and say these things? Why didn’t Jesus obey the Law by casting a stone at this woman? The reason is simple and can be summed up in but one word: grace. Jesus’ purpose in His first coming was not condemnation but salvation. He came to seek and to save sinners. He could rightly refuse to cast a stone at this woman, not because the Law was wrong, but because His purpose in coming was to suffer the death sentence Himself. He came to die for that woman’s sins, and thus He would most certainly not cast a stone at her. He was not minimizing her sin, or its consequences, but rather He was anticipating that day when He would bear the punishment for sins on the cross of Calvary. That, my friend, is the grace of God, the grace which our Lord came to provide through His substitutionary death in the sinner’s place.
There is no word sweeter to the sinner’s ears than the word grace. And there is nothing more repulsive to the self-righteous than grace, for the self-righteous deny their sins and demand God’s blessings as those who deserve them.
Have you ever thought you were too sinful for God to save? Then grace is the good news that God has for you. Your salvation is not based upon how good you are, and your salvation is not prohibited by how sinful you have been. Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and the apostle Paul tells us he wins first prize for being the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). You will have to stand in line behind Paul (and me) if you wish to think of yourself as too sinful. You are never too sinful to be saved, only too good, too self-righteous, too self-sufficient. Nowhere is grace more eloquent, more glorious, more precious, than when it stands in contrast to sin—our sin.
Before we become too smug in our condemnation of men like Jonah, let me ask if you have ever been mad at God. I venture to say that you have, whether you recognize and admit it or not. And why were you mad at God? Because you felt God did not give you what you deserved. You were mad because God was not dealing with you on the basis of something other than grace. Grace is not obliged to give the unworthy sinner anything. And the unworthy sinner has no grounds for protest if God withholds His grace, for it was not something he earned or deserved anyway.
Grace is such wonderful news, such a glorious offer, to those who are sinners, because they know they deserve nothing other than God’s wrath. Grace is only repulsive to the self-righteous. Grace is also the basis for humility. Grace declares that all men are equal in their lost condition. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). All are worthy of suffering eternally in hell. Every sinner is lost and doomed and soon to be damned, apart from the grace of God. Grace not only declares all to be equally lost, grace declares all who are saved are equal as well. We are not saved by good works, by our efforts or merits. We are saved by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary, by His substitutionary death in our place, and His resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. Grace puts all men on level ground. There is no room for boasting regarding grace, except for boasting in the One who has been gracious to us.
Grace is the rule of life, and it is also the dominant theme of our lives as we live in this world and serve God in His church. We are to show grace to others, just as God has been gracious to us. Grace is also under attack by those like Jonah and the Jewish religious leaders of New Testament times. We must always be on guard against those who would undermine grace.
Of all the truths which should stir your soul, prompt your worship and service, and produce humility and gratitude, it is the truth that God is a God of grace, and that grace has been manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. If you would receive the grace of God, you must do so by accepting the gracious gift of salvation God has provided in and through Christ. May our hearts and minds be continually awe-struck with the “wonderful grace of Jesus.”
In God mercy and grace are one; but as they reach us they are seen as two, related but not identical.
As mercy is God’s goodness confronting human misery and guilt, so grace is His goodness directed toward human debt and demerit. It is by His grace that God imputes merit where none previously existed and declares no debt to be where one had been before.
Grace is the good pleasure of God that inclines Him to bestow benefits upon the undeserving. It is a self-existent principle inherent in the divine nature and appears to us as a self-caused propensity to pity the wretched, spare the guilty, welcome the outcast, and bring into favor those who were before under just disapprobation. Its use to us sinful men is to save us and make us sit together in heavenly places to demonstrate to the ages the exceeding riches of God’s kindness to us in Christ Jesus.45
‘It is the eternal and absolute free favour of God, manifested in the vouchsafement of spiritual and eternal blessings to the guilty and the unworthy.’46
`Grace is a provision for men who are so fallen that they cannot lift the axe of justice, so corrupt that they cannot change their own natures, so averse to God that they cannot turn to Him, so blind that they cannot see Him, so deaf that they cannot hear Him, and so dead that He Himself must open their graves and lift them into resurrection.’47
Since mankind was banished from the eastward Garden, none has ever returned to the divine favor except through the sheer goodness of God. And wherever grace found any man it was always by Jesus Christ. Grace indeed came by Jesus Christ, but it did not wait for His birth in the manger or His death on the cross before it became operative. Christ is the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. The first man in human history to be reinstated in the fellowship of God came through faith in Christ. In olden times men looked forward to Christ’s redeeming work; in later times they gaze back upon it, but always they came and they come by grace, through faith.48
But nothing more riles the natural man and brings to the surface his innate and inveterate enmity against God than to press upon him the eternality, the freeness, and the absolute sovereignty of Divine grace. That God should have formed His purpose from everlasting, without in anywise consulting the creature, is too abasing for the unbroken heart. That grace cannot be earned or won by any efforts of man is too self-emptying for self-righteousness. And that grace singles out whom it pleases to be its favoured objects, arouses hot protests from haughty rebels.49
42 Other Old Testament texts which are profitable for a study of the grace of God are Genesis 6:8; Deuteronomy 8:11-20; Nehemiah 9 (all); Psalm 6:1-3; 103:6-18; Isaiah 30;15-18; Joel 2:11-17; Zechariah 12:10--13:1.
43 I very much doubt he did so with zeal or with joy. He probably did as poor a job as possible, meeting only the minimum requirement of obedience. I can safely say this on the basis of chapter 4.
44 How interesting that the man was not brought forward. Surely they knew who the man was if she had been caught in the “very act”. What hypocrisy!
45 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, p. 100.
46 Abraham Booth, The Reign of Grace (as cited by Pink, The Attributes of God, p. 60.).
47 G. S. Bishop, as cited by Pink, Attributes, p. 64.
48 Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, p. 102.
49 Pink, Attributes of God, p. 61.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
9. The Sovereignty of God in History
Everyone in my family is convinced that God led a collie named Levi to our door. His name was engraved on the tag hanging around his neck when he arrived. Can you imagine a dog named Levi finding the Strauss house? Our youngest son had been praying for a dog for nearly three years, but we had laid down some stringent requirements. He had to be housebroken. He had to be obedient. And he had to be a gentle, people-dog in order to live in a pastor’s home where visitors come and go regularly.
When my wife returned the dog to its owner, whose address was also engraved on the tag, she said kiddingly, “If you ever want to get rid of this dog, please let us know.” The surprising reply was, “I do. I’m looking for a good home for him right now.” My wife asked if we could think about it overnight. To our delight, Levi got out of his house and found his way to our residence again the next morning. This time we decided he could stay. When the owner brought us his papers, we learned that he had been conceived at the approximate time our son began to pray for a dog, that he was born on my wife’s birthday, and that he was an honor graduate of obedience school. No one will ever convince us that Levi’s coming was anything other than the gracious work of our sovereign God. Incidentally, he did meet the other requirements as well.50
Virtually all Christians give at least verbal assent to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. There are simply too many texts which teach this truth to deny it:
19 The LORD has established His throne in the heavens; And His sovereignty rules over all (Psalm 103:19). 3 But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3). 5 For I know that the LORD is great, And that our Lord is above all gods. 6 Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps (Psalm 135:5-6).
The meaning of sovereignty could be summed up in this way: To be sovereign is to possess supreme power and authority so that one is in complete control and can accomplish whatever he pleases.
A number of similar definitions of sovereignty can be found in books on the attributes of God:
“The dictionaries tell us that sovereign means chief or highest, supreme in power, superior in position, independent of and unlimited by anyone else.”51
“Furthermore, His sovereignty requires that He be absolutely free, which means simply that He must be free to do whatever He wills to do anywhere at any time to carry out His eternal purpose in every single detail without interference. Were He less than free He must be less than sovereign.
Grasping the idea of unqualified freedom requires a vigorous effort of the mind. We are not psychologically conditioned to understand freedom except in its imperfect forms. Our concepts of it have been shaped in a world where no absolute freedom exists. Here each natural object is dependent upon many other objects, and that dependence limits its freedom.”52
“God is said to be absolutely free because no one and no thing can hinder Him or compel Him or stop Him. He is able to do as He pleases always, everywhere, forever. To be thus free means also that He must possess universal authority. That He has unlimited power we know from the Scriptures and may deduce from certain other of His attributes.”53
Subject to none, influenced by none, absolutely independent; God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases. None can thwart Him, none can hinder Him. So His own Word expressly declares: ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure’ (Isa. 46:10); ‘He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand’ (Dan. 4:34). Divine sovereignty means that God is God in fact, as well as in name, that He is on the Throne of the universe, directing all things, working all things ‘after the counsel of His own will’ (Eph. 1:11).”54
“God’s supremacy over the works of His hands is vividly depicted in Scripture. Inanimate matter, irrational creatures, all perform their Maker’s bidding. At His pleasure the Red Sea divided and its waters stood up as walls (Ex. 14); and the earth opened her mouth and guilty rebels went down alive into the pit (Nu. 14). When He so ordered, the sun stood still (Josh. 10); and on another occasion went backward ten degrees on the dial of Ahaz (Isa. 38:8). To exemplify His supremacy, He made ravens carry food to Elijah (I Kings 17), iron to swim on top of the waters (II Kings 6:5), lions to be tame when Daniel was cast into their den, fire to burn not when the three Hebrews were flung into its flames. Thus ‘Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did He in heaven, and in earth, in the seas, and all deep places’ (Psa. 135:6).”55
In a world reluctant to acknowledge the existence of God, one should not expect the unbeliever to embrace the doctrine of God’s sovereignty:
“The ‘god’ of this twentieth century no more resembles the Supreme Sovereign of Holy Writ than does the dim flickering of a candle the glory of the midday sun. The ‘god’ who is now talked about in the average pulpit, spoken of in the ordinary Sunday School, mentioned in much of the religious literature of the day, and preached in most of the so-called Bible Conferences is the figment of human imagination, an invention of maudlin sentimentality.… A ‘god’ whose will is resisted, whose designs are frustrated, whose purpose is checkmated, possesses no title to Deity, and so far from being a fit object of worship, merits naught but contempt.”56
In the church, one can expect the Christian to embrace the doctrine of the sovereignty of God as both biblical and true. This may be done in principle but not necessarily in practice. Our problems with God’s sovereignty most often come where the “rubber meets the road:”
God is truly and perfectly sovereign. That means He is the highest and greatest being there is, He controls everything, His will is absolute, and He does whatever He pleases. When we hear that stated, we can understand it reasonably well, and we can usually handle it until God allows something that we do not like. Then our normal reaction is to resist the doctrine of His sovereignty. Rather than finding comfort in it, we find that it gets us upset with God. If He can do whatever He pleases, why does He allow us to suffer? Our problem is a misunderstanding of the doctrine and an inadequate knowledge of God.57
It is vitally important for every Christian to understand the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. I have chosen to consider the subject in two lessons. The first lesson considers the sovereignty of God over the nations of the world in history, and the next reflects on the sovereignty of God in salvation. The attribute of God’s sovereignty troubles many people; it troubles many Christians. But the sovereignty of God is crucial because it is taught in the Bible and because it is the basis for godly living. We must look to the Word of God and the Spirit of God to teach us what we need to know about God’s sovereignty.
As I searched the Scriptures for a concise definition of divine sovereignty, I was surprised to learn where the definition was found. It was not in the New Testament, not from the pen of the apostle Paul, not from Moses in the Law, and not from one of the great prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah. The clearest definition of God’s sovereignty comes from the lips of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. There we find not a begrudging acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty, but an expression of worship and praise:
34 “But at the end of that period I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever; For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What hast Thou done?’” (Daniel 4:34-35).
This acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God is made by a man who knows more of human sovereignty than any American ever could. Among the kings of history, this king is “the king of kings” (Daniel 2:37). He is the “head of gold” (Daniel 2:38). In comparison with his kingdom, the remaining world empires are described as “inferior” (see 2:39-43). When Daniel spoke to Belshazzar of the kingdom of his father, Nebuchadnezzar, he described the extent of his dominion:
18 “O king, the Most High God granted sovereignty, grandeur, glory, and majesty to Nebuchadnezzar your father. And because of the grandeur which He bestowed on him, all the peoples, nations, and men of every language feared and trembled before him; whomever he wished he killed, and whomever he wished he spared alive; and whomever he wished he elevated, and whomever he wished he humbled (Daniel 5:18-19).
In our world, we have no political leader or ruler who even approaches the kind of human sovereignty we see in Nebuchadnezzar. The Office of President of the United States is a position of great power, but it is not an example of sovereignty. Former President Richard Nixon was not free to run the country as he saw fit. His role in the Watergate conspiracy cost him the White House. Presidents may be criticized (if not removed from office) for sexual or moral improprieties. They certainly do not find it possible to pass every bill, create every program, or appoint every official that pleases them.
Nebuchadnezzar was a man of great military and political power. He ruled the nation (Babylon) with an iron fist, and Babylon dominated all other world powers of that day. He was the commander who defeated and destroyed Jerusalem and who led most of the Jews into Babylonian captivity. The people of Judah seemed insignificant and impotent against such a great man as Nebuchadnezzar, and indeed they were. But the God of the Jews is the One true God and the One great God. God chose to demonstrate His sovereignty over history and over all the nations of the earth by bringing Nebuchadnezzar to his knees in submission to and the worship of Himself.
This lesson will focus on Daniel 2-4, three chapters which describe the three events which brought Nebuchadnezzar to his knees in submission to the God of the Jews. We will see from these events how God demonstrated His sovereignty over the nations of the earth, and we shall see how God is sovereign in history.
As a result of Israel’s persistent rebellion against God and her failure to heed the warnings of the prophets, God raises up Babylon to defeat and destroy Judah and Jerusalem through a series of military campaigns:
9 Jehoiachin was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned three months and ten days in Jerusalem, and he did evil in the sight of the LORD. 10 And at the turn of the year King Nebuchadnezzar sent and brought him to Babylon with the valuable articles of the house of the LORD, and he made his kinsman Zedekiah king over Judah and Jerusalem. 11 Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. 12 And he did evil in the sight of the LORD his God; he did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet who spoke for the LORD. 13 And he also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar who had made him swear allegiance by God. But he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD God of Israel. 14 Furthermore, all the officials of the priests and the people were very unfaithful following all the abominations of the nations; and they defiled the house of the LORD which He had sanctified in Jerusalem. 15 And the LORD, the God of their fathers, sent word to them again and again by His messengers, because He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place; 16 but they continually mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against His people, until there was no remedy. 17 Therefore He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans who slew their young men with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or infirm; He gave them all into his hand. 18 And all the articles of the house of God, great and small, and the treasures of the house of the LORD, and the treasures of the king and of his officers, he brought them all to Babylon. 19 Then they burned the house of God, and broke down the wall of Jerusalem and burned all its fortified buildings with fire, and destroyed all its valuable articles. 20 And those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, 21 to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its sabbaths. All the days of its desolation it kept sabbath until seventy years were complete (2 Chronicles 36:9-21; see also Jeremiah 25:1-14; 29:15-20).
In one of the early attacks on Jerusalem, Daniel was taken captive (Daniel 1:1-7). Daniel and his three friends recognized their captivity was God’s judgment on the nation for its sin, and they knew that after 70 years God would once again restore the people to their land (see Daniel 9:1-2). They committed to keep themselves pure from the idolatry of Babylon, and they did not eat of the normal provisions of food for captives like themselves (Daniel 1:8-16). These four young men were thus distinguished from the others for their wisdom, and Daniel was able also to interpret dreams and visions (1:17-21).
One night Nebuchadnezzar had a dream he did not understand which caused him much distress. When he summoned the wise men of the land, he wanted to be certain the interpretation they gave him was genuine, so he required them to first tell him what his dream was and then give him the interpretation. The response of his wise men is significant:
10 The Chaldeans answered the king and said, “There is not a man on earth who could declare the matter for the king, inasmuch as no great king or ruler has ever asked anything like this of any magician, conjurer or Chaldean. 11 Moreover, the thing which the king demands is difficult, and there is no one else who could declare it to the king except gods, whose dwelling place is not with mortal flesh.” 12 Because of this the king became indignant and very furious, and gave orders to destroy all the wise men of Babylon. 13 So the decree went forth that the wise men should be slain; and they looked for Daniel and his friends to kill them (Daniel 2:10-13, emphasis mine).
How God loves to reveal His sovereignty against the backdrop of man’s weaknesses and limitations! The king did not know the meaning of his dream, and the wise men of the land knew it was humanly impossible for them to know what the king had dreamed. He was asking of mere men that which only the “gods” could perform. This was a task for the “gods.” The king was pressing his sovereignty too far by asking mere men to do what only “gods” could do. But Daniel was a servant of the Most High God, the sovereign God of the universe. His God could reveal the dream and its meaning.
Daniel was placed in a situation where he must act, for all the wise men were condemned to die. Daniel and his three friends first prayed that God would reveal the dream and its meaning. All of this is directly related to verses 17-21 in chapter 1. Daniel prayed to the sovereign God and then praised Him for the revelation of the dream.
19 Then the mystery was revealed to Daniel in a night vision. Then Daniel blessed the God of heaven; 20 Daniel answered and said, “Let the name of God be blessed forever and ever, For wisdom and power belong to Him. 21 And it is He who changes the times and the epochs; He removes kings and establishes kings; He gives wisdom to wise men, And knowledge to men of understanding. 22 It is He who reveals the profound and hidden things; He knows what is in the darkness, And the light dwells with Him. 23 To Thee, O God of my fathers, I give thanks and praise, For Thou hast given me wisdom and power; Even now Thou hast made known to me what we requested of Thee, For Thou hast made known to us the king’s matter” (Daniel 2:19-23).
The dream was not the product of Daniel’s wisdom alone; it was revealed by God (2:28). Daniel then reveals the dream to Nebuchadnezzar, along with its meaning:
31 “You, O king, were looking and behold, there was a single great statue; that statue, which was large and of extraordinary splendor, was standing in front of you, and its appearance was awesome. 32 The head of that statue was made of fine gold, its breast and its arms of silver, its belly and its thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay. 34 You continued looking until a stone was cut out without hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay, and crushed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time, and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.
36 “This was the dream; now we shall tell its interpretation before the king. 37 You, O king, are the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, the strength, and the glory; 38 and wherever the sons of men dwell, or the beasts of the field, or the birds of the sky, He has given them into your hand and has caused you to rule over them all. You are the head of gold. 39 And after you there will arise another kingdom inferior to you, then another third kingdom of bronze, which will rule over all the earth. 40 Then there will be a fourth kingdom as strong as iron; inasmuch as iron crushes and shatters all things, so, like iron that breaks in pieces, it will crush and break all these in pieces. 41 And in that you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it will be a divided kingdom; but it will have in it the toughness of iron, inasmuch as you saw the iron mixed with common clay. 42 And as the toes of the feet were partly of iron and partly of pottery, so some of the kingdom will be strong and part of it will be brittle. 43 And in that you saw the iron mixed with common clay, they will combine with one another in the seed of men; but they will not adhere to one another, even as iron does not combine with pottery. 44 And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever. 45 Inasmuch as you saw that a stone was cut out of the mountain without hands and that it crushed the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver, and the gold, the great God has made known to the king what will take place in the future; so the dream is true, and its interpretation is trustworthy.”
46 Then King Nebuchadnezzar fell on his face and did homage to Daniel, and gave orders to present to him an offering and fragrant incense. 47 The king answered Daniel and said, “Surely your God is a God of gods and a Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, since you have been able to reveal this mystery” (Daniel 2:31-47, emphasis mine).
The king’s words indicate his recognition that the God of Daniel is a sovereign God. Daniel’s “god” is not just “God,” but the “God of gods.” He is the God who is sovereign not only over heavenly powers, but over earthly powers as well. And so he also refers to God as “Lord of kings.”
In addition, Nebuchadnezzar praises Daniel’s God for being “a revealer of mysteries.” Daniel’s God enabled him to know the king’s dream and its interpretation. But more is involved because of the subject matter of the dream. The dream, as revealed and interpreted by Daniel, was about Nebuchadnezzar’s kingdom and about others which would follow it. His was the greatest of these kingdoms, but it was a kingdom that would, nevertheless, end. Other inferior kingdoms would follow. In the end, an eternal kingdom would be built, as it were, on the ashes of all the preceding kingdoms. The “head of gold” was great, but the “stone made without hands” (2:34-35, 44-45) was the greatest. The kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar was great, but the kingdom of the future was one that would “endure forever” (2:44).
Nebuchadnezzar recognized that his kingdom was inferior to the eternal kingdom which would be established later and that he was inferior to the “stone” who would establish that kingdom. He also realized that the God who made known these future kingdoms was the God who was sovereign over history. Only such a God could reveal future kings and kingdoms, for only a God who controls history can foretell that history centuries in advance.
9 “Behold, the former things have come to pass, Now I declare new things; Before they spring forth I proclaim them to you” (Isaiah 42:9). 5 “Therefore I declared them to you long ago, Before they took place I proclaimed them to you, Lest you should say, ‘My idol has done them, And my graven image and my molten image have commanded them’” (Isaiah 48:5).
Nebuchadnezzar seems to have recognized that only a God who is sovereign over history can foretell that history before it has come to pass. But there is still more for him to learn about divine sovereignty.
It seems the fact that Nebuchadnezzar was the “head of gold,” revealed to the king in chapter 2, went to his head. The king seems to have focused only on his greatness, not on the greatness of God and the kingdom yet to be established on earth. He made an image of gold and commanded all to fall before it in worship (2:1-6). All who were given the musical cue fell down in worship of the image, except those faithful Jews like Daniel’s three friends who were accused before Nebuchadnezzar (2:7-12). In a rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned the three and gave them one final chance to avoid his wrath (2:13-15). His final statement sets the stage for him to learn yet another lesson concerning the sovereignty of God:
14 Nebuchadnezzar responded and said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready, at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, and bagpipe, and all kinds of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, very well. But if you will not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?” (Daniel 3:14-15, emphasis mine)
Nebuchadnezzar had apparently forgotten that his sovereignty was relative and that it had been divinely bestowed. Among men, Nebuchadnezzar had no superior and not even an equal. As king of Babylon, his power was unchallenged by men. But when he erected the golden image and commanded men to worship it, he stepped beyond the realm of authority God had given to men. If he was not seeking the worship of himself as a god, he was certainly compelling men of all nations to worship his gods. He seems to be linking his greatness and his power to his gods. In so doing, he denied the One true God, the God of Israel, the God whom he previously acknowledged as a “God of gods” and “Lord of kings” (2:47). While Daniel’s three friends were willing to obey Nebuchadnezzar as the king whom God had placed in authority over them, they were not willing to worship his gods or to worship him as a god. They had to obey the One true God, even if it meant disobeying such a powerful king as Nebuchadnezzar:
16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. 17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. 18 But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18, emphasis mine).
The response of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego to Nebuchadnezzar is instructive concerning the sovereignty of God and submission. When they chose to disobey this king, they did so as an act of submission to the One who has absolute sovereignty, the God of Israel. And even when they must “obey God rather than men” (see Acts 5:29), they still speak to the king with due respect. Their response to Nebuchadnezzar reveals the depth of their understanding of the sovereignty of their God. Their words express their confidence in God’s absolute sovereignty. He is able to do whatever He wishes. He does not take orders from men; He does as He pleases:
3 But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3).
5 For I know that the LORD is great, And that our Lord is above all gods. 6 Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps (Psalm 135:5-6).
Because the sovereign God is able to does as He pleases, these three servants of God are not about to pronounce just what God will do. That is a matter of His good pleasure. He will do with them as He pleases. They are convinced that He can and will deliver them from Nebuchadnezzar’s hand, but this deliverance could take different forms. He could deliver them from being cast into the furnace. He could deliver them through the furnace (as He does), or He could deliver them through death, raising them in the last day. How He will deliver they do not know. Their deliverance is within God’s sovereign purpose, and they make no effort to indicate what this might be. That is God’s business, for He is sovereign.
Nebuchadnezzar was enraged by the response of these three men who dared to defy his “sovereign” decree. He ordered his servants to heat the furnace seven times hotter and then throw the three men into it (3:19-20). The fire was so intense the king’s servants attending it were themselves killed by the heat. Once the men were in the furnace, what the king saw when he looked into the furnace completely astounded him:
24 Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astounded and stood up in haste; he responded and said to his high officials, “Was it not three men we cast bound into the midst of the fire?” They answered and said to the king, “Certainly, O king.” 25 He answered and said, “Look! I see four men loosed and walking about in the midst of the fire without harm, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods!” (Daniel 3:24-25).
Would Nebuchadnezzar command these Hebrews to bow down to his golden image and worship his gods? The fourth person in the furnace with these three men appeared as one of the gods! Obviously, the “God” of these three men was greater than the “gods” of Nebuchadnezzar. What “god is there who can deliver them out of the king’s hand?” Nebuchadnezzar challenged (2:15). Their God, the God of the Jews, did deliver them.
Seeing the hand of God deliver the three men he had attempted to intimidate with his power, Nebuchadnezzar ordered the men released. When they emerged from the furnace, he observed that these men were not harmed or even affected by the fire in any way. The intense heat and flames which smote the king’s servants (3:22) did not so much as singe a hair on one of these three Hebrews. Not even the smell of fire was on them. Now Nebuchadnezzar speaks of their “god” (see verse 15) as the “Most High God.” He once again acknowledges the God of Israel to be the sovereign God, the “God of gods” and “Lord of kings” (2:47).
28 Nebuchadnezzar responded and said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, who has sent His angel and delivered His servants who put their trust in Him, violating the king’s command, and yielded up their bodies so as not to serve or worship any god except their own God. 29 Therefore, I make a decree that any people, nation or tongue that speaks anything offensive against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego shall be torn limb from limb and their houses reduced to a rubbish heap, inasmuch as there is no other god who is able to deliver in this way” (Daniel 3:28-29).
The fourth chapter of Daniel is the final crowning event in God’s dealings with Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. You will notice that this chapter is told in part by king Nebuchadnezzar himself (see verses 1-18). Nebuchadnezzar confesses his arrogance and pride and his humbling by the sovereign hand of God. The chapter begins with Nebuchadnezzar’s praise of the sovereign God of Israel:
1 Nebuchadnezzar the king to all the peoples, nations, and men of every language that live in all the earth: “May your peace abound! 2 It has seemed good to me to declare the signs and wonders which the Most High God has done for me. 3 How great are His signs, and how mighty are His wonders! His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and His dominion is from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:1-3).
Nebuchadnezzar’s “fall” takes place some time after he was warned of his humbling by God in a dream which greatly troubled him (4:5). All the wise men of Babylon were unable to interpret the dream even though he related it to them (4:7). When Daniel was brought before the king, Nebuchadnezzar described his vision:
10 ‘Now these were the visions in my mind as I lay on my bed: I was looking, and behold, there was a tree in the midst of the earth, and its height was great. 11 The tree grew large and became strong, And its height reached to the sky, And it was visible to the end of the whole earth. 12 Its foliage was beautiful and its fruit abundant, And in it was food for all. The beasts of the field found shade under it, And the birds of the sky dwelt in its branches, And all living creatures fed themselves from it. 13 I was looking in the visions in my mind as I lay on my bed, and behold, an angelic watcher, a holy one, descended from heaven. 14 He shouted out and spoke as follows: “Chop down the tree and cut off its branches, Strip off its foliage and scatter its fruit; Let the beasts flee from under it, and the birds from its branches. 15 Yet leave the stump with its roots in the ground, But with a band of iron and bronze around it in the new grass of the field; And let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, And let him share with the beasts in the grass of the earth. 16 Let his mind be changed from that of a man, And let a beast’s mind be given to him, and let seven periods of time pass over him. 17 This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watchers, And the decision is a command of the holy ones, in order that the living may know That the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, And bestows it on whom He wishes, and sets over it the lowliest of men.” 18 This is the dream which I, King Nebuchadnezzar, have seen. Now you, Belteshazzar, tell me its interpretation, inasmuch as none of the wise men of my kingdom is able to make known to me the interpretation; but you are able, for a spirit of the holy gods is in you’ (4:10-18).
When Daniel heard the dream the king had received, he was greatly troubled also for he recognized that the vision was a warning to the king of a most humbling sentence God would bring upon him in the future. It is clear Daniel is submissive toward his king and desires his best interests. He does not delight in what will happen to the king. Nebuchadnezzar encouraged Daniel to speak freely about the meaning of this vision. Daniel then proceeded to inform the king about the dream. The great tree which the king saw represented him, the great king of Babylon. Its size and strength and the creatures which it sustained all symbolized the power and majesty of his kingdom. These images spoke of his “sovereignty” over the earth:
22 “It is you, O king; for you have become great and grown strong, and your majesty has become great and reached to the sky and your dominion to the end of the earth” (4:22).
As was evident to the king by Daniel’s alarm over this dream, there was a message of warning, the threat of a dramatic fall:
23 “‘And in that the king saw an angelic watcher, a holy one, descending from heaven and saying, “Chop down the tree and destroy it; yet leave the stump with its roots in the ground, but with a band of iron and bronze around it in the new grass of the field, and let him be drenched with the dew of heaven, and let him share with the beasts of the field until seven periods of time pass over him”; 24 this is the interpretation, O king, and this is the decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king: 25 that you be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place be with the beasts of the field, and you be given grass to eat like cattle and be drenched with the dew of heaven; and seven periods of time will pass over you, …’” (Daniel 4:23-25).
Just as the king’s position of greatness was given to him by God, it was also to be taken away and the king thereby humbled for seven years. The majesty and splendor the king once enjoyed would be exchanged for the humiliation of beastly appearance and conduct. All of this was to be for the king’s good, to teach him humility. He was to learn that human sovereignty is bestowed upon men through divine sovereignty:
25 “. . . until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes” (Daniel 4:25b).
Whatever sovereignty the king of Babylon possessed was a limited sovereignty and a delegated sovereignty. The king’s position and power was not due to his greatness but rather due to the greatness of God who gave him his position of power.
In this word of warning, there was also a two-fold message of hope. First, the king was told how he might avoid the fate of which his dream warned.
27 “‘Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you: break away now from your sins by doing righteousness, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity’” (Daniel 4:27).
This instruction is hardly different from that which the prophets Amos and Micah gave to the nation Israel:
21 “I hate, I reject your festivals, nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings, I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings. 23 Take away from Me the noise of your songs; I will not even listen to the sound of your harps. 24 But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
8 He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8).
The nation Israel had been promised sovereignty over the nations of the world (Genesis 18:17-19; 22:17; 24:60; 27:29; Deuteronomy 15:6; 28:7-14; see also Isaiah 66). Power was given to Nebuchadnezzar (and to Israel) so he might deliver the oppressed and care for the helpless. In his vanity and pride, Nebuchadnezzar seems to have gone the way of the world, using his power to oppress the helpless rather than care for them. If he would repent of his pride and use his God-given power as God would have him do, then there would be no need for the humiliation of which this dream warned. He might avoid God’s chastening if he would repent and rule righteously.
There is a second message of hope. Even if Nebuchadnezzar were to ignore this warning, and even though he might be humbled by becoming beastly, this was only for a time—for seven years. This humbling work would then bear the fruit of repentance, and thus the king’s former sovereignty would be restored. Nebuchadnezzar was offered the hope of restoration if he repented—at the time of his warning or after the time of his humiliation.
By Nebuchadnezzar’s own confession, he did not heed the warning God gave him through the dream and Daniel’s interpretation. A year later, he foolishly took pride in his sovereignty as though he were the one responsible for his success. As a result, the dream came true:
29 “Twelve months later he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon. 30 The king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?’ 31 While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, 32 and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it on whomever He wishes.’ 33 Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws (Daniel 4:29-33).
I know of no greater humiliation than what this great king had to undergo nor of another human being who has undergone such a malady. Some still attempt to find an instance in history when such a malady occurred, as though we might then be assured of the accuracy of the Bible’s description. (They also try to find a man who was swallowed by a great fish!) I am inclined to think this was a unique, one-time phenomenon, which points all the more to a sovereign intervention of God into human history. The exact ailment is hard to fully understand because the description of Nebuchadnezzar is spoken of in terms of what he looked like, not what ailment he actually had. He did not grow feathers; his hair was long and bushy so that it looked feather-like. His nails were not bird’s claws; they were so long they were like bird’s claws. On top of all this, the king ate grass, like cattle, and was obviously out of his mind.
Whatever the king’s ailment, it accomplished its divine purpose in the precise time frame indicated—seven years. The king looked heaven-ward, and his sanity returned. He immediately praised God as the Most High. He confessed that He alone is sovereign and that He does what He wills so that no one should dare to challenge His deeds (verses 34-35).
We have been considering the sovereignty of God as taught in chapters 2-4 in the Book of Daniel. The sovereignty of God was a truth the disobedient Jews in Babylon needed to understand, and it is also a truth desperately needed today. Let us consider how the sovereignty of God related to the Jews in the Babylonian captivity, and later, how God’s sovereignty applies to us today.
God is sovereign over secular governments. Throughout the history of Israel, God used the pagan nations to accomplish His purposes. God used Egypt to preserve and proliferate the nation Israel for 400 years before they were to possess the promised land. God used the hard-hearted Pharaoh to display His greatness and power. He used the surrounding nations to chasten Israel when the nation fell into sin and disobedience. He used the nations of Assyria and Babylon to lead the Jews into captivity. Nebuchadnezzar was even called God’s “servant” (Jeremiah 25:9; 27:6; 43:10). The sacking of Judah and Jerusalem was no fluke of history; it was no mere fate. It was the outworking of the plan and purpose of the sovereign God of Israel to achieve His purposes, to fulfill His promises and prophecies.
The sovereignty of God was important to the Jews, as it is to us, because it is the basis for our assurance that God’s prophecies concerning His future kingdom will be fulfilled. The vision God gave to Nebuchadnezzar in chapter 2 was of the coming of the eternal kingdom, which Christ, “the stone made without hands,” would establish. It was to be established by abolishing the present kingdoms of men. Only a God who is sovereign over history could fulfill the prophecies of the coming kingdom of God. No wonder the sovereignty of God is such a prominent theme in Daniel. Daniel is a book of history and prophecy. In the historical portions, God’s sovereignty is demonstrated. In the prophetic portions, God’s sovereignty is not only necessary; it is assumed. The God who has shown Himself sovereign over the nations is the God who promises to establish His kingdom over all nations.
Here is a lesson we need to learn and be constantly reminded of in our twentieth century. We live in a day of chaos and change. The USSR has virtually dissolved before our eyes. The Berlin Wall has been torn down. Nations are in civil war, and thousands of innocent lives are being sacrificed as we look on, helplessly it would seem. Christians seem to be shaken when a Democrat is elected to the highest office in the land. It is as though God’s sovereignty is not believed.
Our problem is not new. It is the problem of assuming that God is powerless to work out His plan and purposes where pagans are in power. This was the error of Abraham which prompted him to lie about the identity of his wife, passing her off as being merely his sister:
10 And Abimelech said to Abraham, “What have you encountered, that you have done this thing?” 11 And Abraham said, because I thought, surely there is no fear of God in this place; and they will kill me because of my wife. 12 Besides, she actually is my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother, and she became my wife” (Genesis 20:10-12, emphasis mine).
Not only did God use Nebuchadnezzar to chasten His people, God actually brought this pagan king to his knees. God “subjected” this sovereign king to Himself. God brought him to faith. This nation Israel was to be a “light to the Gentiles.” They were to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, for God’s salvation was not for Jews only. They refused to do so, and so God brought about the evangelization of the Gentiles through the unbelief and rebellion of the Jews. The sin of the nation led to their subjugation and captivity in Babylon. There, godly saints like Daniel bore witness to the God of Israel, and even this sovereign king came to bow the knee to Him in worship and adoration. God is not only sovereign among His people and in the land of Canaan, God is sovereign over all the earth and heaven as well!
This must mean that God is sovereign over the decisions of the President of the United States, over the laws passed by Congress, and even over the decisions reached by the Supreme Court. God is even sovereign over the Internal Revenue Service. God is sovereign over kings and kingdoms. If this is true, then we need to believe that every king, every person in a position of political power, is there by divine appointment (see Romans 13:1-2). This means that we owe such authorities our respect, our obedience, and our taxes, unless any of these specifically require us to disobey God (Romans 13:1-7). It means that the laws, decisions, and decrees they make—even those which punish or persecute the saints—have a divine purpose. We may be required to disobey government, like Daniel and his three friends, but only when obeying that government would require us to disobey God. In the chaos and wickedness of our day, let us not lose sight of the fact that God is sovereign in history, and sovereign even over pagan powers.
The sovereignty of God is a truth not quickly or easily learned. God’s sovereignty is clearly revealed in the Scriptures, but it often takes a sequence of adverse circumstances before it becomes a part of the fabric of our thinking and behavior. In these three chapters (2-4) of Daniel, God progressively convinces Nebuchadnezzar of His sovereignty. Nebuchadnezzar professed to believe in God’s sovereignty in chapter 2, after his dream was revealed and interpreted by Daniel. But in chapter 3, we see the king attempting to compel those under his authority to worship an idol, an affront to the sovereign God of Israel. When God delivers Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego from the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar once again proclaims that God is sovereign. But in chapter 4, we see Nebuchadnezzar exalting himself in pride and God having to humble him through his seven-year insanity.
In chapter 2, Nebuchadnezzar saw the relationship of God’s sovereignty to future world history. In chapter 3, the king was shown the relationship between God’s sovereignty and his power to pass laws and to punish men. Now, in chapter 4, king Nebuchadnezzar begins to see how the sovereignty of God relates to his personal attitudes and actions as king of Babylon. The king began to view his position and power as the measure of his personal greatness. He became puffed up with power and pride. It would seem that he began to abuse his power, taking advantage of the weak and the vulnerable rather than using his power to protect them and provide for them. God taught Nebuchadnezzar that one’s position and power is God-given and a manifestation of His greatness—not man’s. God indeed lifts up “those whom He wishes,” and He “sets over it the lowliest of men” (Daniel 4:17). Power and position are God-given privileges; they are also stewardships of which we should not be proud but employ for the benefit of others.
Many wish to be leaders today for reasons all too similar to those of Nebuchadnezzar. They wish to rule. They do not wish to serve others but to be served. They are not unlike the disciples during the earthly ministry of our Lord. They are not unlike many Christians today who seek to lead, not to serve but to have status and to be served. Those who are given positions of power and prestige need to beware of pride, being constantly reminded that leadership is both God-given and a manifestation of His greatness—not ours.
Lest we think king Nebuchadnezzar was different from any of us, we should consider that ours is a day in which individuals seek to be sovereign. They want to be autonomous and independent, the captains of their own souls, the masters of their own fate. Perhaps more than any other age, self-hood prevails. This is the age of self, as the Scriptures foretell (2 Timothy 3:1,2a). A friend handed me a brochure for a seminar which promises to teach ten steps to success. Every single step is dominated by the word “self.” We, like Nebuchadnezzar, and like his predecessor and ours, Satan, want to be “gods.” We wish to dethrone the one true God and to enthrone ourselves. Let Nebuchadnezzar be our teacher, and let us humbly bow the knee to Him from whom, through whom, and to whom are all things).
36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:36).
1 Samuel 2:1-10
2 Kings 19:15
1 Chronicles 29:11-12
2 Chronicles 20:5-6
Job 9:12; 12:13-25; 23:13; 33:12-13; 41:11; 42:2
Psalms 2 (all); 22:27-28; 37:23; 75:6-8; 76:10; 95:3-5; 103:19; 115:3*; 135:5-18 (5-6)
Proverbs 16:1-5, 9, 33; 19:21; 20:24; 21:1
Ecclesiastes 3:14; 9:1
Isaiah 14:24-27; 40:12-15, 18, 22, 25; 44:6,24-28; 45:5, 7, 9-13; 46:9-11
Jeremiah 18:6; 32:17-23, 27; 50:44
Daniel 2:21, 37-38; 4:17, 32, 34-35; 5:18; 7:27; 6:26
Matthew 11:25-26; 20:1-16
Acts 2:22-24; 4:24-28; 17:26
Romans 8:28; 11:36; 14:11
Ephesians 1:11; 4:6
1 Timothy 6:15
50 Richard L. Strauss, The Joy of Knowing God (Neptune, New Jersey: Loizeaux Brothers, 1984), p. 118.
51 Ibid., p. 114.
52 A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1961), p. 115.
53 Ibid., p. 116.
54 A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Swengel, Pa.: Reiner Publications, 1968), p. 27.
55 Ibid., p. 25.
56 Ibid., pp. 23, 24.
57 Richard Strauss, The Joy of Knowing God, pp. 114-115.
Related Topics: Theology Proper (God)
10. The Sovereignty of God in Salvation - (Romans 9:1-24)
As the end of my seminary training neared, I had to give thought to what I would do after graduation and just where that might be. In the back of my mind, it seems I had determined that Houston, Texas, was one place I would not want to go. Although I never verbalized that Houston was off limits, somehow it became apparent to me that I would not seriously consider inquires from there. At that point in time, I inwardly removed Houston from the black list of my heart, “All right, Lord, even Houston,” I sighed. That night, a call came from a group in Houston, which I neither initiated nor invited. While I did give the ministry opportunity consideration, I must admit some relief when it did not materialize.
As much as we like to believe we are fully submissive to the sovereignty of God, virtually all of us have areas we have consciously or unconsciously fenced off, as though God could be “sovereign” in some areas of our life but not in others. Most Christians profess to believe in the sovereignty of God but refuse to grant it to operate in certain areas. Death is usually assigned to the category of God’s sovereignty because we have no control over it anyway. Disasters are considered matters of divine sovereignty with even unbelievers referring to certain disasters as “acts of God.”
Much of evangelicalism refuses to grant God sovereignty when it comes to the salvation of sinners, as though this refusal actually could change the fact of His sovereignty. They are willing to grant God much of the credit for the work of Christ on the cross and the Holy Spirit’s work in drawing men to faith. But they are not willing to admit God is in complete control (for this is precisely what sovereignty is—complete control) of the salvation of lost sinners. Granted men have a role to play in this process, but clearly God is in control, complete control, of the process.
This debate over the relationship between God’s role in salvation and man’s may seem to be reserved only for academicians. But this is not true, for the sovereignty of God in salvation is a most crucial doctrine, as Martin Luther claimed:
“Therefore, it is not irreverent, inquisitive, or trivial, but helpful and necessary for a Christian, to find out whether the will does anything or nothing in matters pertaining to eternal salvation.… If we do not know these things, we shall know nothing at all of things Christian and shall be worse than any heathen.… Therefore, let anyone who does not feel this confess that he is no Christian. For if I am ignorant of what, how far, and how much I can and may do in relation to God, it will be equally uncertain and unknown to me what, how far, and how much God can and may do in me.… But when the works and power of God are unknown in this way, I cannot worship, praise, thank, and serve God, since I do not know how much I ought to attribute to myself and how much to God. It therefore behooves us to be very certain about the distinction between God’s power and our own, God’s work and our own, if we want to live a godly life.”58
What does it mean when we say that God is sovereign in salvation? Charles H. Spurgeon has said it about as well as can be said by men:
“First, then, DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY AS EXEMPLIFIED IN SALVATION. If any man be saved, he is saved by divine grace and by divine grace alone; the reason of his salvation is not to be found in him, but in God. We are not saved as the result of anything that we do or that we will, but we will and do as the result of God’s good pleasure and the work of His grace in our hearts. No sinner can prevent God; that is, he cannot go before Him, cannot anticipate Him. God is always first in the matter of salvation. He is before our convictions, before our desires, before our fears, and before our hopes. All that is good or ever will be good in us is preceded by the grace of God and is the effect of a divine cause within.”59
“Again, the grace of God is sovereign. By that we mean that God has an absolute right to give that grace where He chooses and to withhold it when He pleases. He is not bound to give it to any man, much less to all men; if He chooses to give it to one man and not to another, His answer is, ‘Is thine eye evil because mine eye is good? Can I not do as I will with mine own? I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.’”60
Scripture says the same thing, just as clearly and emphatically:
44 “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day (John 6:44).
65 And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted him from the Father” (John 6:65).
48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).
14 And a certain woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul (Acts 16:14).
34 For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? 35 Or WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:34-36).
30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31 that, just as it is written, “LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD” (1 Corinthians 1:30-31).
6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).
2 Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).
Those who are saved are saved because God has chosen them for salvation. The Holy Spirit has given life to a dead spirit and understanding to a mind blinded by sin and by Satan. Those who are saved may be said to choose God, but only after God has first chosen them for salvation:
16 “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give to you” (John 15:16).
The other side of the equation is also true. Those who are eternally lost are lost because God has not chosen them for salvation:
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” 9 And He said, “Go, and tell this people ‘Keep on listening, but do not perceive; Keep on looking, but do not understand.’ 10 Render the hearts of this people insensitive, Their ears dull, and their eyes dim, Lest they see with their eyes, Hear with their ears, Understand with their hearts, And return and be healed” (Isaiah 6:8-10).
3 And I saw one of his heads as if it had been slain, and his fatal wound was healed. And the whole earth was amazed and followed after the beast; 4 and they worshiped the dragon, because he gave his authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who is able to wage war with him?” 5 And there was given to him a mouth speaking arrogant words and blasphemies; and authority to act for forty-two months was given to him. 6 And he opened his mouth in blasphemies against God, to blaspheme His name and His tabernacle, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 And it was given to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them; and authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him. 8 And all who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Revelation 13:3-8).
8 “The beast that you saw was and is not, and is about to come up out of the abyss and to go to destruction. And those who dwell on the earth will wonder, whose name has not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world, when they see the beast, that he was and is not and will come” (Revelation 17:8).
Do not misunderstand what is being said here. In order to be saved, men must trust in Jesus Christ as God’s provision to save lost sinners. And when they do so, it is because God has given them the heart to do so. Men exercise faith out of the heart God has given them to believe:
6 “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live” (Deuteronomy 30:6).
33 “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people” (Jeremiah 31:33).
Likewise, when men are eternally lost, it is because they have chosen to reject God’s revelation (Romans 1:18ff.) and His provision for salvation in Jesus Christ. Why do lost sinners go to hell? They perish because they have not chosen God. They also perish because God has not chosen to rescue them from their sin and rebellion. In the simplest terms, men go to hell not only because God decreed it, but because they deserve it (see Revelation 16:4-7).61
Many texts like those cited above clearly reflect that salvation is not our work but God’s, and that we contribute nothing to it which He has not already given to us by His grace. We will turn in this lesson to a text which establishes even more forcefully than the previous texts the sovereignty of God in salvation. The sovereignty of God in salvation can be inferred from a number of biblical texts, and it is claimed or clearly stated by other texts. But the ninth chapter of Romans is devoted to establishing the sovereignty of God in salvation. It is the issue in view and the conclusion of the entire chapter. It is not merely implied, or even stated; it is declared, proven, and even defended against some of the popular objections to this truth. For this reason, we shall trace Paul’s inspired logic through the first 24 verses of Romans 9.
1 I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, 2 that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, 4 who are Israelites, to whom belongs the adoption as sons and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the Law and the temple service and the promises, 5 whose are the fathers, and from whom is the Christ according to the flesh, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
In the first eight chapters of the Book of Romans, Paul sets down the most detailed and reasoned explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In 1:18–3:20, Paul establishes the doctrine of man’s depravity—that sinful, fallen condition of every human being, without exception—which places sinners under the sentence of divine condemnation with no human hope of salvation apart from divine intervention. In 3:21-5:21, Paul explains the divine provision whereby sinners may be justified by faith in Christ. In chapters 6-8, Paul speaks of the present and future implications of this justification by faith.
Up until now, Paul has spoken of both Jews and Gentiles as the recipients of justification by faith. In chapters 9-11, he sets out to show that the unbelief of the Jews and the salvation of the Gentiles are not evidences of a failure on the part of God’s Word, but rather a very unexpected but precise fulfillment of His Word. In chapter 9, Paul shows that the doctrine of election is a manifestation of God’s sovereignty in salvation, and that it explains the unbelief of many Jews, as well as the conversion of many Gentiles. Simply put, those many Jews (and Gentiles) who have rejected the work of Jesus Christ and who are therefore eternally lost, are illustrative of the sovereignty of God in salvation. And those Gentiles (and Jews) who have come to faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah are saved as the outworking of the sovereignty of God in salvation.
Before considering the details of this passage, two important observations must be noted concerning the text as a whole. These observations are necessary because of those who do not want to acknowledge the sovereignty of God in salvation (including especially the doctrine of election). They seek to avoid the subject by insisting Paul is speaking here of corporate election, not individual election, and that this election is not to salvation or eternal torment, but rather for certain blessings. The text compels us to strongly differ with this view and to oppose it.
First, we should observe that verses 1-5, reinforced by verses 22-23, insist that salvation is in view and nothing less. In simple terms, Paul is talking about heaven and hell, who goes there, and why. Paul is greatly distressed because his fellow-Israelites are lost and under divine condemnation. Why else would he say he is willing to be accursed, separated from Christ, for the sake of his brethren (Romans 9:3)? The cure should be no more severe than the malady, and thus we see that the malady is that of eternal doom.
Second, we observe that the text is not about corporate election but individual election. To say that election is corporate fails to understand that this is precisely what the passage is written to refute. The Jews loved the doctrine of election, because they wrongly applied election corporately to the offspring of Abraham.62 They thought of themselves as the elect of God and all others as the non-elect. They thought all Jews were going to heaven and all Gentiles to hell. A few token memberships to heaven might be granted to a few Gentiles, but these would have to become Jewish proselytes. Election, viewed in this way, was a delight to the Jews. But this is not the election which the Word of God teaches.
This is exactly the kind of “election” Paul opposes. In Romans 9, Paul proves that God’s election is not corporate, and that not all the physical descendants of Abraham or Jacob (also named Israel) were recipients of God’s promised blessings. The failure of the nation Israel with regard to Messiah was not a failure of God’s Word, but the failure of those who presumed the promised blessings of God were corporate—intended to include all of the Jews and to exclude the Gentiles. Therefore, in Romans 9:6-18, Paul cites three illustrations of God’s individual election: Isaac, not Ishmael (9:6-9); Jacob, not Esau (9:10-13); and Moses, not Pharaoh (9:14-18).
According to Paul, the problem of Jewish unbelief (in Jesus as the Messiah) and Gentile belief is not to be explained away as though God’s promises have failed. Rather, God’s blessing of salvation have never been granted on the basis of who men are or what they do. Salvation has always been on the basis of divine election. No “worthy” people are chosen because none are worthy. Those who are chosen are the unworthy, whose salvation is due solely to the sovereign grace of God. In this chapter of Romans, Paul insists that God ultimately determines the eternal destiny of men. Only those He has chosen will choose Him. Those whom He has rejected will persistently reject Him. God chooses some to be saved and ordains the rest for eternal condemnation. In Romans 9, Paul not only demonstrates the truth of this from the Old Testament Scriptures, he also raises the objections the doctrine of election precipitates. He then answers them in a way which defends the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation.
In verses 1-5 Paul, reveals his heart concerning his fellow-Israelites. He writes not as a traitor to his nation, but as a true patriot. He loves his fellow-Israelites and would sacrifice his life for their salvation if he could. He writes with a broken heart and a sincere desire to see his own people saved.
The pitiable spiritual condition of the nation Israel is not due to lack of exposure to God; rather, it is in spite of unparalleled spiritual privileges God heaped upon the Jews. Their unbelief, in spite of the many privileges God granted to them, set them apart from others. Consider some of their privileges:
(1) Their adoption as sons (their calling to exercise God’s sovereign rule on the earth—Exodus 4:22-23; 2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 2:1-9; compare Romans 8:18-25)
(2) The glory (the revelation of God’s glory to the Israelites—Exodus 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:10-11)
(3) The covenants (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:2; Deuteronomy 28-31)
(4) The giving of the Law (Exodus 20f.; Deuteronomy 5f.; Psalm 147:19)
(5) The temple service (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:1f.; Hebrews 9:1-10)
(6) The promises of God (Acts 2:39; 13:32-33; Galatians 3:13-22; Ephesians 2:12)
(7) The patriarchs (Deuteronomy 7:8; 10:15; Acts 3:13; Romans 11:28)
(8) The Jews (specifically the tribe of Judah) are the people from whom the Messiah has come (Genesis 12:1-3; 49:10; 2 Samuel 7:14; Matthew 1:1-16; Luke 1:26-33)
In spite of her many privileges, Israel’s condition illustrates a principle closely related to the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation or, more simply, divine election: God’s salvation is not directed toward the privileged, whom we might deem worthy of salvation, but to those pathetic souls who are unworthy of it, whom the unbelieving world considers undeserving to receive it.
The scribes and Pharisees could not fathom why Jesus would associate with “sinners.” Our Lord’s answer was not what they wanted to hear:
29 And Levi gave a big reception for Him in his house; and there was a great crowd of tax-gatherers and other people who were reclining at the table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes began grumbling at His disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with the tax-gatherers and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:29-32).
Paul’s words to the Corinthian Christians are not flattering to the saints either, for they emphasize that salvation is the result of God’s choosing and that those He chooses are not those whom we would expect:
26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, 29 that no man should boast before God. 30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31 that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
Two things are said in this text which should keep any Christian from becoming proud or taking any credit for their salvation. First, it is God who has done it all. It is “by His doing” that anyone is saved (verse 30). It is He who has (first) chosen us, not we who have chosen Him (John 15:16). Second, we dare not boast in ourselves as Christians because the kind of people God most often chooses are those who are foolish, weak, and base (verses 27-28). If one would boast in his salvation, he must boast in the Lord, for salvation is of the Lord.
Judaism’s error is the assumption that being a partaker of Israel’s national privileges (those listed above in verses 4-5) assured one of also being an individual partaker of the blessing of eternal salvation. John the Baptist attacked this error early in the Gospels:
8 “Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:8-10).
Salvation is not determined by one’s ancestry or race; it is not determined on the basis of any privileges one may have enjoyed. Salvation is based solely on God’s individual election, resulting in faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life.
Some wrongly assume that growing up in a Christian home assures them of the blessing of salvation. There are privileges involved in being a part of a Christian family (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-14), but there is no assurance that growing up in a Christian home will save you. Many Christian parents feel guilty if one of their children does not trust in Christ, but they have no control over this matter. All they can do is to live out their faith in obedience to the Scriptures in the context of the family and recognize that salvation is of the Lord. Growing up in the midst of Christians is no guarantee of salvation, just as growing up in a pagan environment does not doom one to unbelief. Just as we cannot take pride in our own salvation, or that of any other, neither should we blame ourselves when those we love reject the gospel we have embraced.
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; 7 neither are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants, but: “through Isaac your descendants will be named.” 8 That is, it is not the children of the flesh who are children of God, but the children of the promise are regarded as descendants. 9 For this is a word of promise: “At this time I will come, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only this, but there was Rebekah also, when she had conceived twins by one man, our father Isaac; 11 for though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
A first glance suggests something has gone wrong. If many Jews are rejecting Jesus as their Messiah and many Gentiles are coming to faith in Him, is this not the reverse of what God promised? Has something gone wrong with God’s plan? More pointedly, have the promises of God failed? Has the Word of God failed (verse 6)? Paul immediately informs us there has been no failure with the Word of God. He is about to prove that the Word is actually been fulfilled by what is taking place among the Jews and the Gentiles. The plan of God for the salvation of men is being fulfilled not as we would have expected (see Romans 11:33-35), but just as God has promised.
The doctrine of divine election is the only adequate explanation for widespread Jewish unbelief and for many Gentiles coming to faith. This is important to us because, in the final analysis, the ultimate explanation for unbelief and faith is divine election. How does one explain the unbelief and consequent judgment of men? The answer is two-fold. First, men are lost because they have not chosen to accept God’s provision of salvation in Jesus Christ. Second, they are lost because God has not chosen them. In Romans 9, Paul’s emphasis is on the second reason.
The Jews’ error, that all Jews are elect and thus should be saved, was based upon their wrong assumption that all Israelites are God’s elect, the true Israel of God. The Jews assumed that because they were physical descendants of Abraham, they were guaranteed a place in the kingdom of God. Paul corrects this misconception, informing us that just because one is a descendant of Jacob (or Israel), he or she is not necessarily a true Israelite.63 Neither is every child of Abraham one of the “children of God.”
If being a physical descendent of Abraham is not the basis for one’s entrance into the blessings of salvation, what determines who receives these blessings? The answer is simple: divine election. The “children of God” are those who are the “children of promise” (9:8). God promised Abraham he would have a child, and that through this child, God’s promises would be fulfilled. Ishmael was not that child. Ishmael was the result of Abraham and Sarah’s efforts to produce a son through means other than what God intended—a surrogate wife and mother, Hagar. Of these two “sons” of Abraham, only one was the son of promise—Isaac. And so not all the descendants of Abraham were the recipients of the promised blessings of God. God chose Isaac, and He rejected Ishmael. Did God’s Word fail because Isaac was chosen and Ishmael was rejected? Not at all, because God’s promise was only given to Isaac.
Some might object that the principle of election can hardly be established on the evidence of God’s choice of Isaac and His rejection of Ishmael. After all, these sons had the same father but a different mother, and the mother of Ishmael was a concubine. No wonder Ishmael was rejected, and Isaac was chosen. Paul therefore moves on to his second illustration of election, God’s choice of Jacob and His rejection of Esau (verses 10-13). These two sons were born of the same parents and were even the product of the same union. They were twins. No two sons could be more similar, and yet God rejected the one and chose the other.
God’s choice of Jacob over Esau is contrary to all that we would have expected. By custom, the first-born son received the birthright, and yet God indicated His choice of the younger son to Rebekkah before Jacob or Esau were even born:
21 And Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord answered him and Rebekah his wife conceived. 22 But the children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is so, why then am I this way?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. 23 And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb; And two peoples shall be separated from your body; And one people shall be stronger than the other; And the older shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:21-23).
God indicated His choice of Jacob over Esau before their birth without regard to any works either son would do. Some insist God chooses whom He does because He knows beforehand they will choose Him. They suppose God chooses those who will be most beneficial to His work. Too often I hear people commenting on what a dynamic Christian someone would become if they were only saved. They should be taken back by Paul’s words which indicate that God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was made without any regard to what they could or would do, apart from their works. It is not that God was ignorant of what these two would do; rather, His choice was made without regard to their deeds. His choice was a declaration and demonstration of His sovereignty:
11 For though the twins were not yet born, and had not done anything good or bad, in order that God’s purpose according to His choice might stand, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, 12 it was said to her, “The older will serve the younger” (Romans 9:11-12).
We should not fail to note that when God chose Jacob over Esau, He did so in spite of Isaac’s strong preference for Esau (it was his Rebekkah who favored Jacob, while Isaac preferred Esau, Genesis 25:28), and in spite of Isaac’s efforts to reverse the blessing so as to fall on Esau (Genesis 27). Before it began, Jacob was God’s choice, and Esau was rejected. When it was all over, Jacob was the son who received God’s blessing, not Esau. Lest we think God’s choice of Jacob did not also include His rejection of Esau, Paul reminds us,
13 Just as it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13).
God’s sovereignty was demonstrated in His choice of Jacob and in His rejection of Esau.
14 What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate My power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.” 18 So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires (Romans 9:14-18).
Paul raises a question which expects a negative response: “There is no injustice with God, is there?” If we doubt what response is expected (the Greek text makes it clear), Paul’s response removes all doubt: “May it never be!” I prefer the older translation of the King James Version, “God forbid!” Of course, God is free from any accusation of injustice. If this question presupposes the answer, it also presupposes the reason for asking it. Paul is teaching divine election. God chooses one and rejects another, and when God chooses a person for salvation, He always does so on the basis of grace, bestowed by His sovereign choice and not on the basis of works. If Paul were not teaching the doctrine of election, this question would be inappropriate and not even deserve an answer. But Paul was teaching on election, which is why he raises the question of justice.
How then can God choose to save one man and harden another and not be accused of injustice? The answer is very simple: grace. Salvation is a matter of divine grace sovereignly bestowed upon those whom God chooses as its recipients. Grace is about something wonderful which God gives to guilty sinners who are not worthy of God’s blessings. Justice is about people getting what they deserve. It is unjust when men labor for their employer and are not paid. It is unjust when a guilty criminal is not punished. God is not unjust to condemn sinners to the eternal torment, because they are getting just what they deserve. Furthermore, God is not unjust in saving men. The punishment for sinners whom God has saved has been borne by the Lord Jesus Christ, who died in the sinner’s place, bearing the wrath of God. God is therefore just in condemning men to bear the penalty they deserve, and He is just in saving men, whose penalty Christ has borne:
21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).
Note the tone of Paul’s words in Romans 9:14-18. They are not apologetic. Paul is not shuffling his feet, hesitant as to how he should respond. He is bold and confident. He is incensed that any might even suggest that God is unjust in election. He is not interested in defending God as much as in declaring God’s sovereignty.
God is not unjust in the salvation of sinners who deserve the eternal wrath of God (verses 15-16). Neither is God unjust in the condemnation of sinners like Pharaoh, whose heart God hardened (verses 17-18). Moses and Pharaoh are more than just contemporaries who faced off at the exodus. Moses was the man who appears to have been next in line to be the Pharaoh of Egypt. God spared Moses, appointing him to lead His people out of bondage. And God appointed Pharaoh to be the one who would refuse to release these people from bondage and whose resistance would provide the occasion for God’s power to be declared throughout the whole earth.
Through Moses, God displayed His grace. When God began to reveal His glory to Moses in Exodus 33 (climaxing in chapter 34), He declared that His mercy was to be sovereignly granted to whomever He chose. The reason any person received grace was not to be found in that person, the recipient of His blessings, but in God, the Blessor. Grace is unmerited favor, and thus it must be sovereignly bestowed, for no one would ever be worthy of it. If one could be worthy of God’s favor (which no one can), God’s blessings would not be on the basis of grace but of works. But because no one is worthy of divine favor, every blessing of God is granted on the basis of grace, with no deciding factor other than God’s sovereign choice.
God spoke directly to Moses (verse 15) and indirectly (through Moses and the Scripture) to Pharaoh (verse 17). Pharaoh was chosen too but for a very different role and destiny. He was raised up so that God’s power could be displayed because of his stubborn opposition. God’s victory over Pharaoh, through the plagues and then through the parting of the Red Sea, was widely proclaimed (see Exodus 15:14-16). God was glorified through the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart just as He was glorified through Moses.
Here is a very important truth which seems to escape many Christians. Many seem to think God suffers some kind of defeat when lost sinners do not repent and come to faith in Him. They suppose God is glorified only through the salvation of the lost and not through the condemnation of stubbornly resistant sinners. In fact, God is glorified through the salvation of sinners and through the condemnation of sinners. God reveals His mercy in saving sinners and His power in triumphing over those who oppose Him. God is not embarrassed by those who reject Him. He does not “need” to save men in order to be glorified by them.
19 You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who resists His will?” 20 On the contrary, who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? 21 Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? 22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? 23 And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory.
There is an answer for this question, but Paul is not going to respond to the question raised until after he has made a very important point. Verse 19 is not just a question; it is an insult because it questions the integrity of God. It is actually an indictment against God, a protest. It does not seek an answer; it senses that in asking the question, God is silenced.
In this chapter, Paul has been teaching the sovereignty of God. Centuries before Paul lived, God brought a Babylonian king to his knees. This great king learned some very important lessons about sovereignty. Nebuchadnezzar learned first that while God grants men a certain degree of sovereignty on earth (see Daniel 2:37; 9:18f.), ultimately only He is sovereign:
34 “But at the end of that period I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever; For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, And His kingdom endures from generation to generation. 35 And all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What hast Thou done?’ 36 At that time my reason returned to me. And my majesty and splendor were restored to me for the glory of my kingdom, and my counselors and my nobles began seeking me out; so I was reestablished in my sovereignty, and surpassing greatness was added to me. 37 Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise, exalt, and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride” (Daniel 4:34-37).
Especially important to Paul’s response in Romans 9:20-21 is the statement of Daniel 4:35:
35 “And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What has Thou done?’”
Sovereignty means that the one who is sovereign is in complete control, above questioning by any subordinate. Paul is very sensitive to this fact and thus immediately reacts, rebuking the attitude of the questioner. Who is man to question God? God is the Creator, and it is His prerogative to use His creations (men) any way He chooses. Men are His creation, and they have no right to question their Creator. If God chooses to use one of His vessels to bring Him glory by being a vessel prepared for destruction, that is His right. If God chooses to bring glory to Himself by making another vessel as a vessel of mercy, a vessel which He will save, that too is His prerogative.
God’s power is demonstrated by the outpouring of His wrath on sinners, as it was at the Exodus. God’s mercy and grace is demonstrated by the outpouring of His grace on unworthy sinners, saving them in spite of their sin. His delay in destroying the “vessels of wrath” is purposeful, allowing Him time to show His grace to the “vessels of mercy.” And these “vessels of mercy” include some who are Jews and some who are Gentiles.
I am constantly amazed at how slowly the disciples (and I!) grasped our Lord’s teaching. Even after the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord, we see that the apostles were slow to embrace the teaching of the Old Testament and of Jesus in the Book of Acts. In Acts 1:8, Jesus told them:
8 But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
This was but a repetition of what Jesus had already commanded the disciples before His death:
18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20, emphasis mine).
Did the disciples immediately seek to evangelize Gentiles in the Book of Acts? Certainly not. Indeed, they resisted it. The evangelization of Gentiles happened in spite of the apostles more than because of them, another evidence of God’s sovereignty in salvation. It took intense persecution to scatter the Jewish believers from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1ff.). It took a dramatic and repeated divine vision to get Peter to go to the house of Cornelius, a Gentile, and preach the gospel (see Acts 10:1ff.). And when word reached the ears of the Jewish leaders of the Jerusalem church, Peter was called on the carpet and rebuked for preaching to Gentiles (Acts 11:1-3).
Peter’s argument was too compelling. They had to admit that God must have intended to save Gentiles too, but notice what they did once they acknowledged this—nothing:
15 “And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, just as He did upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how He used to say, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If God therefore gave to them the same gift as He gave to us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 And when they heard this, they quieted down, and glorified God, saying, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” 19 So then those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose in connection with Stephen made their way to Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:15-21).
Had it not been for that anonymous group of Hellenistic Jews, who did not know any better than to share their faith with Gentiles, the predominantly Gentile church in Antioch would never have been established (humanly speaking, of course).
When we come to verse 24 in Romans 9, Paul wants his readers to understand that the salvation of many Gentiles and the unbelief of many Jews should have come as no surprise. He now turns to the Old Testament to show that far from God’s promises having failed by Gentile faith and Jewish unbelief, His promises are being fulfilled.
23 And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, 24 even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. 25 As He says also in Hosea, “I will call those who were not My people, ‘My people,’ And her who was not beloved, ‘beloved.’ 26 And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, ‘you are not My people,’ There they shall be called sons of THE LIVING God.” 27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be AS THE SAND OF THE SEA, IT IS THE REMNANT THAT WILL BE SAVED; 28 for the Lord will execute His word upon the earth, thoroughly and quickly.” 29 And just as Isaiah foretold, “Except the Lord of Sabaoth had left to us a posterity, We would have become as Sodom, and would have resembled Gomorrah.” 30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, 33 just as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion A STONE OF STUMBLING AND A ROCK OF OFFENSE, And he who believes in Him WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED” (Romans 9:1-33).
All whom God chooses to save are lost sinners, dead in their trespasses and sins, captives not only to their own sins, but to Satan himself, not one bit different from those who will spend eternity in hell (see Ephesians 2:1-3). Those whom God saves do not seek Him; they are saved apart from seeking to be righteous (Romans 9:30-33). They are saved not because of what they are or because of what they will be or could be (Romans 9:11). They are chosen and saved, not because of any decision they make for God; rather the decision to trust God is the result of His doing, not man’s (John 1:12: Acts 13:48; 16:14; Philippians 1:29; 2:12-13). Through His Spirit, God regenerates the one dead in his trespasses and sins, giving both life and faith so that the individual is now drawn to Him (John 6:44) and expresses faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, a faith which also comes from God (Ephesians 2:8-9; 1 Corinthians 4:7); salvation is thus regarded as the work of the sovereign God—not men (Romans 9:11, 15-16; 11:36; 1 Corinthians 1:30-31; Hebrews 12:2).
Are some distressed that God chooses some and not others? They should not be! When God chooses to save anyone, He chooses one who would never have first chosen Him. Michael Horton puts it this way,
“Essentially, election is God’s making the decision for us that we would never have made for Him.”64
We should be grateful that God elects some to salvation; otherwise, no one would ever have been saved. If God looked down the corridors of time and chose those who would choose Him, He would have chosen none, for none would have chosen Him (see Romans 3:10-18).
If God were to have chosen those who were worthy of His salvation, He would have chosen none. Election is the choice of a sovereign God to save some. Election is based solely upon God’s grace, not upon any merit of our own. Election is the outworking of grace, and the only means by which sinners could be saved. It is not a doctrine to agonize over, but a doctrine over which we should rejoice. It is the basis for gratitude and for praise. As Paul will say in chapter 12:
1 I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2, emphasis mine).
The conclusion to chapters 9-11 of Romans is no begrudging acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty but joyful praise for His sovereignty:
33 Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! 34 For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? 35 Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to him again? 36 For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:33-36).
The sovereignty of God is an incentive to pray for the salvation of the lost and a source of comfort when some reject His offer of salvation in Christ. Knowing that God is sovereign in salvation is a great incentive to witness, because I know God will accomplish His purposes. In spite of my failures in presenting the gospel, and the blindness of those to whom it is preached, God is the One who saves. My labor and yours in evangelism is never in vain. Even when men reject the gospel, God is glorified in the preaching of His gospel, whether men believe it or not. He is glorified both by the salvation of sinners and by the eternal punishment of sinners.
Ultimately, men are not saved because we have convinced them or even because they have (first) decided to choose to believe in God. Men are saved because God has chosen them, enlightened and illuminated them by His Spirit to understand the gospel, and effectually called them by opening their hearts to respond to the gospel. Who would you rather have in control of men’s eternal destiny, sinful men or a loving, merciful, and sovereign God? To whom would you rather appeal for the salvation of men? He is a God who loves us and who delights to answer our prayers. Let us rejoice that the salvation of our loved ones is ultimately in His hands, and that we can beseech Him to save them. And when loved ones reject the gospel, we know that He is able to save. When loved ones die without coming to faith, we know this did not take God by surprise but is a part of His great eternal plan.
Often in our presentation of the gospel, I fear we misrepresent God and demean His glory in the picture we convey to the lost. The gospel must not be viewed as God begging and pleading with sinners hoping desperately that they will choose Him. The gospel is a command, and we proclaim this to lost sinners. We know we cannot convince men of their sin or cause them to turn to Christ, but God can and does for all He has chosen. Let us never portray a “wimpy” God, who is dependent on the decisions of men, rather than the true God, who always achieves what He purposes.
No wonder the gospel is offensive to lost sinners who wish to think they are “masters of their fate,” the “captains of their souls.” We are not in control. Lost men are sinners, who have offended a righteous and holy God and who are destined for eternal hell. They cannot do anything to save themselves. They must acknowledge their sins and cast themselves upon the mercy of God as made available in the shed blood of Jesus Christ, who died to pay the penalty for men’s sins and to offer unworthy sinners His righteousness. The gospel is a glorious offer to lost sinners, who know they can do nothing to save themselves. The gospel is an offense to the self-righteous, who think they are saved on their own, by their own merits.
Have you acknowledged your sin and guilt? Have you submitted to the sovereign God of the universe and accepted His provision for your salvation? I cannot convince you or convert you. I can tell you that your sins merit you an eternity in hell and that God by His grace has sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to take the sinner’s place and to give men His righteousness. He has promised that His Spirit will convince lost sinners of their sin, of His righteousness, and of eternal judgment. Will you submit to God by receiving His way of salvation, the only way of salvation? I pray that you will.
Consider these thoughts on the relationship between regeneration and belief:
All men are dead in their trespasses and sins, unresponsive to God, and unable to do anything to change their condition (see Ephesians 2:1-3). Those dead in their trespasses and sins do not understand God; they do not grasp the gospel or seek God. They are destined for divine wrath, hopeless apart from divine grace and intervention.
Regeneration is the supernatural work of God which gives dead men life (Ephesians 2:5; Titus 3:5).
Faith is a gift which God gives to those whom His Spirit has regenerated, thus enabling and causing God’s chosen to respond to the gospel by trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Regeneration precedes belief. Regeneration is the work of the Holy Spirit, giving life to one who is spiritually dead. This new life is expressed by faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God is the initiator, the first cause, and man’s faith is thus the result of God’s work in man.
This means that salvation is ultimately the work of God. He is the initiator; we respond (see 1 John 4:19). He is the author and the perfecter/finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2). He will complete what He has begun in us (Philippians 1:6). Rightly, we find God described as the cause of men’s faith (Acts 13:48; 16:14).
The other (incorrect) view is that man first acts, trusting in God, and then God responds by bestowing salvation, in response to man’s faith. In this case, man is the first cause. The problem with this view is that it contradicts Scripture. It denies the sovereignty of God and denies the depravity of man. How can a dead man, who hates God and does not seek Him, suddenly, on his own initiative, turn to God in faith (see Romans 3:9-18)?
Many are the objections to divine sovereignty. Let us raise a number of them and offer a biblical response.
God’s election is based on His foreknowledge, and foreknowledge is God’s knowledge, in advance, of who will choose Him (texts like Romans 8:29 are used as proof texts).
(1) Foreknowledge sometimes refers to one’s previous knowledge about someone. In the Scriptures it is also used of a choice made ahead of the time. And to “know” sometimes means “to choose” (Genesis 18:19, see marginal note; Jeremiah 1:5) and to “foreknow” sometimes means to “choose ahead of time.” In Romans 11:2 and 1 Peter 1:20, “foreknew” cannot mean simply “knew about ahead of time.” It has to mean, “chose or selected ahead of time.”
(2) If God’s choice of those whom He would save was based upon his foreknowledge of those who would choose Him, no one would be saved because of human depravity (see John 6:37, 44; Romans 3:9-18). No one would choose God unless God first chose us, regenerated us, and gave us the faith to respond to the gospel.
(3) If God’s choice of us is determined by our choice of Him, then we are the initiators of salvation, and God is the responder. This contradicts Scripture (Hebrews 12:1-2; Philippians 1:6, etc.), and it is inconsistent both with the sovereignty of God and with the nature of grace.
(4) The Scriptures teach that God is the initiator of faith and salvation, not men (John 6:44; Acts 13:48; 16:13; see also Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 31:31-34).
What about those texts which call upon men to believe, and those which speak of men choosing (as it were) God?
Men are called upon to repent and believe in Jesus Christ to be saved. Men are saved by faith. All those who come to Him, who call upon the name of the Lord, will be saved (John 6:37; Romans 10:13). But this response which men are required to express is the result of God’s sovereign saving work, and not the cause of it (John 1:12).
Divine sovereignty rules out or excludes human responsibility.
Not at all. Divine sovereignty is the basis for human responsibility:
“Many have most foolishly said that it is quite impossible to show where Divine sovereignty ends and creature accountability begins. Here is where creature responsibility begins: in the sovereign ordination of the Creator. As to His sovereignty, there is not and never will be any end to it!”65
“God is a gentleman, and does not force Himself on anyone.”
This statement expresses a warped view of God’s sovereignty and of man’s depravity. If God did not intervene and overcome our lethal malady of sin and rebellion, no one would ever be saved. The gospel is impossible apart from divine intervention and enablement. When God saves us, He makes the dead alive, He removes our spiritual blindness with sight, He opens our heart to respond, and He gives us a new nature which desires God. If it is not technically correct to say God overrides our will, He most certainly does change our nature and our will.
The subject of God’s sovereignty in salvation is vitally important:
“‘Therefore, it is not irreverent, inquisitive, or trivial, but helpful and necessary for a Christian, to find out whether the [human] will does anything or nothing in matters pertaining to eternal salvation.… If we do not know these things, we shall know nothing at all of things Christian and shall be worse than any heathen.… Therefore, let anyone who does not feel this confess that he is no Christian. For if I am ignorant of what, how far, and how much I can and may do in relation to God, it will be equally uncertain and unknown to me what, how far, and how much God can and may do in me.… But when the works and power of God are unknown in this way, I cannot worship, praise, thank, and serve God, since I do not know how much I ought to attribute to myself and how much to God. It therefore behooves us to be very certain about the distinction between God’s power and our own, God’s work and our own, if we want to live a godly life.’”66
Sovereignty is diametrically opposed to everything natural and fallen in us, and it is completely consistent with what the Bible teaches. Men naturally reject the sovereignty of God and only supernaturally do they receive it. Do you resist it? We should not be surprised. The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is one which no one would naturally believe unless the Scriptures clearly taught it and the Spirit of God changed our hearts to embrace it. Do you wish to know the truth of the matter? Study the Scriptures, and ask God to give you understanding.
“The reason people today are opposed to it [election] is because they will have God to be anything but God. He can be a cosmic psychiatrist, a helpful shepherd, a leader, a teacher, anything at all. . . only not God. For a very simple reason—they want to be God themselves.”67
“It is a measure of our self-centeredness that we would even despise God for loving us before we loved Him.”68
Rejecting or resisting the sovereignty of God in salvation is a very serious matter:
“This doctrine [the sovereignty of God] shows the unreasonableness and dreadful wickedness of your refusing heartily to own the sovereignty of God in this matter. It shows that you know not that God is God. If you knew this, you would be inwardly still and quiet; you would humbly and calmly lie in the dust before a sovereign God and would see sufficient reason for it.
In objecting and quarreling about the righteousness of God’s laws and threatenings and His sovereign dispensations toward you and others, you oppose His divinity; you show your ignorance of His divine greatness and excellency and that you cannot bear that He should have divine honor. It is from low, mean thoughts of God that you do in your minds oppose His sovereignty, that you are not sensible how dangerous your conduct is, and what an audacious thing it is for such a creature as man to strive with his Maker.”69
In the Bible, the sovereignty of God is not a negative truth, a problem doctrine which one should avoid if possible; it is a positive doctrine which encourages, comforts, and motivates.
“Rightly did the later Mr. Spurgeon say in his sermon on Matt. 20:15, ‘There is no attribute more comforting to His children than that of God’s Sovereignty. Under the most adverse circumstances, in the most severe trials, they believe that Sovereignty has ordained their affliction, that Sovereignty overrules them, and that Sovereignty will sanctify them all. There is nothing for which the children ought more earnestly to contend than the doctrine of their Master over all creation—the Kingship of God over all the works of His own hands—the Throne of God and His right to sit upon that Throne. On the other hand, there is no doctrine more hated by worldings, no truth of which they have made such a football, as the great, stupendous, but yet most certain doctrine of the Sovereignty of the infinite Jehovah. Men will allow God to be everywhere except on His throne. They will allow Him to be in His worship to fashion worlds and make stars. They will allow Him to be in His almonry to dispense His alms and bestow His bounties. They will allow Him to sustain the earth and bear up the pillars thereof, or light the lamps of heaven, or rule the waves of the ever-moving ocean; but when God ascends His throne, His creatures then gnash their teeth, and we proclaim an enthroned God, and His right to do as He wills with His own, to dispose of His creatures as He thinks well, without consulting them in the matter; then it is that we are hissed and execrated, and then it is that men turn a deaf ear to us, for God on His throne is not the God they love. But it is God upon the throne that we love to preach. It is God upon His throne whom we trust.”70
Why do you think men resist or reject the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in salvation? Why do Christians resist or reject God’s sovereignty in salvation when they grant God’s sovereignty elsewhere?
What is the relationship between God’s sovereignty in salvation and grace? Between God’s sovereignty in salvation and human depravity? Why must God’s grace be sovereign grace?
How does the sovereignty of God in salvation affect the gospel? How would the depravity of man and man’s resistance to the sovereignty of God in salvation tend to affect the gospel? [In other words, how would the natural or unsaved man rather have the gospel than the way it is?]
How do you think Paul’s conversion (as described in Acts 9, 22, 26) helped prepare him to address the subject of the sovereignty of God in salvation?
How should the biblical view of the sovereignty of God in salvation affect our prayers for the lost? Our motivation for evangelism? Our methods of evangelism? The message we proclaim in evangelism?
Does the sovereignty of God in salvation mean you might be one of the non-elect and that you could not be saved even if you wanted to be? Does it mean we cannot ever know if we really are saved, since salvation is God’s doing and not ours?
“The Scriptures give many examples of God’s freedom in selective grace. Near a pool in Jerusalem gathered ‘a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed’ (John 5:3). Yet, Christ pushes through the crowd and moves toward one man—just one person—and heals him from his paralysis. Now, you have to understand that this was a regular spot for a lot of people who hoped each new day was their day for the miracle. One would think that there would be some sort of healing line, but Jesus only intended to heal one man that day. Why didn’t He heal everybody? He could have; He had the power. But He did not choose to do so. Nevertheless, I have yet to hear a sermon on how unfair it was for Jesus to heal the man at the pool that day. Why should election be any different in the realm of our salvation?”71
“In election we come to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of the wilderness; the God of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ; the God who is anything but a frustrated deity who ‘has no hands but our hands’ and must pace heaven’s floors, ringing his hands, hoping people will ‘let Him have His way.’ This is the God who is everything but a co-pilot. ‘God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble’ (James 4:6 NASB).”72
“You may be thinking, ‘Election and evangelism—in the same breath? I’ve been told they’re mutually exclusive!’ I was told that too. But I can honestly say that evangelism never really meant what it means after having understood election. Sharing the faith with non-believers has become a burden to many and it was to me, until this truth changed my thinking. Election changes our evangelism on three levels: our message, our methods, and our motivation.”73
“But it may be objected, do we not read again and again in Scripture how that men defied God, resisted His will, broke His commandments, disregarded His warnings, and turned a deaf ear to all His exhortations? Certainly we do. And does this nullify all that we have said above? If it does, then the Bible plainly contradicts itself. But that cannot be. What the objector refers to is simply the wickedness of man against the external word of God, whereas what we have mentioned above is what God has purposed in Himself. The rule of conduct He has given us to walk by, is perfectly fulfilled by none of us; His own eternal ‘counsels’ are accomplished to their minutest details.”74
“Being infinitely elevated above the highest creature, He is the Most High, Lord of heaven and earth. Subject to none, influenced by none, absolutely independent; God does as He pleases, only as He pleases, always as He pleases. None can thwart Him, none can hinder Him. So His own Word expressly declares: ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure’ (Isa. 46:10); ‘He doeth according to His will in the army of heaven, and the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand’ (Dan. 4:34). Divine sovereignty means that God is God in fact, as well as in name, that He is on the Throne of the universe, directing all things, working all things ‘after the counsel of His own will’ (Eph. 1:11).”75
“This doctrine [the sovereignty of God] shows the unreasonableness and dreadful wickedness of your refusing heartily to own the sovereignty of God in this matter. It shows that you know not that God is God. If you knew this, you would be inwardly still and quiet; you would humbly and calmly lie in the dust before a sovereign God and would see sufficient reason for it.
“The most insanely daring thing that any man can do, the most exceedingly foolish thing any man can do, the most desperately wicked thing that any man can do, is to reply against God, to enter into controversy with God, to criticize God, to condemn God. Yet that is what many people are doing.”76
“What are we all, the very best of us? Vile—the best of us is but a loathsome sinner. We may not yet realize the fact, but it is true. Our lives have been shot through and through by sin. Yet you undertake to stand in the presence of this Holy God, in whose presence the seraphim veil their faces and their feet, and reply against Him, to suggest what God ought to do, to enter into controversy with God, to criticize God for things which He has seen fit to do, to murmur against God.”77
“He is . . . a Being of infinite wisdom. We look up at the starry heavens above our heads, we look at these wonderful worlds of light that stud the heavens by night. We think of the overwhelming things about their immensity and the incredible speed and momentum of their movements as they rush through space, and as we look up at them, if we are wise, we say, ‘Oh, God, what a Being of infinite wisdom as well as majesty Thou art that Thou canst guide these inconceivably enormous worlds as they go whirling through space with such incredible velocity and momentum.’”
“And yet many of you here tonight do not hesitate to look up at the infinitely wise God who made these wonderful spheres of light, who guides the whole universe in its wonderful, stupendous and bewildering course, and attempt to tell Him what you think He ought to do! Thou fool, art thou mad? No inmate of Patten ever did an insaner thing. ‘Who art thou?’ The wisest man on earth is but a child; the wisest philosopher does not know much; the greatest man of science knows but very little. What he knows is almost nothing in comparison with what he does not know. What he does know, even about the material universe, is as nothing compared with what he does not know.”78
“Suppose some child of thirteen or fourteen should take a book on philosophy setting forth the ripest product of the best philosophic thought of today and begin to criticize it, page by page. What would you think? Would you stand and look at the boy and say with unbounded admiration, ‘What a bright lad he is?’ No, you would say, ‘What a conceited idiot he is to undertake, at his age and with his limited knowledge, to criticize the best philosophic thought of the day!’ But he would not be so conceited an idiot as you or I would be were we to attempt to criticize an infinitely wise God for we are far less than children compared with the infinite God.”
“The most profound philosopher of today is but a little child compared with the Infinite God. And yet you, who do not make any pretensions of being a philosopher at all, take God’s Book, you a little child, an infant, take this Book which represents the best wisdom of God, and you sit down and turn it, page by page, and try to criticize it, and people stand and look at you and admire and say, ‘What a scholar!’ But the angels look down and say, ‘What a fool!’ And what does God say? ‘O man, who art thou that repliest against God? He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord the Almighty and the Eternal] shall have [you] in derision’ (Ps. 2:4).”79
“It has never dawned on some people that even God could by any possibility know more than they know. It never dawned on me for years, and in those days I was a Universalist. I thought that all men would ultimately be saved. I was a Universalist because I had an argument for the ultimate salvation of everybody for which I could see no possible answer. I thought if I could not see an answer, why, no one could. So I challenged anybody to meet me on that argument and answer it. I went around with my head pretty high and said, ‘I have found an unanswerable reason for Universalism.’ I thought that I was a Universalist for all time and that anyone who was not a Universalist was not well posted.”
“One day it occurred to me that an infinitely wise God might possibly know more than I did. That had never dawned on me before. It dawned upon me also that it was quite possible that a God of infinite wisdom might have a thousand good reasons for doing a thing, when I, in my finite foolishness, could not see even one. So my fondly cherished Universalism went up in smoke.”
“If you get that thought, that an infinitely wise God may possibly know more than even you do, and that God in His infinite wisdom might have a thousand good reasons for doing a thing when you cannot see even one, you will have learned one of the greatest theological truths of the day—one that will solve many of your perplexing problems in the Bible.”
“Men try to lay hold of infinite wisdom and fancy that they can squeeze it down into the capacity of their pint-cup minds. But because they cannot squeeze infinite wisdom into their pint-cup minds, they say, ‘I don’t believe that Book is the Word of God, because it has something in it that I cannot understand the philosophy of.’ Why should you understand the philosophy of it? Who are you, anyhow? How much of a mind have you, anyhow? How long have you had it? How long are you going to keep it? Who gave it to you?”80
“It is not our business to find out the philosophy of things; it is not our business to see the reason of things. It is our business to hear what God has to say, and when He says it, believe it, whether you can understand the philosophy of it or not.”81
“There is one more class that is replying against God, that is the men who instead of accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior and surrendering to Him as their Lord and Master and openly confessing Him as such before the world, are making excuses for not doing it. Jesus says in John 6:37, ‘Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.’ God says in Revelation 22;17, ‘Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.’ Anybody can come to Christ, and anybody who does come will be received and saved. Yet many of you, instead of coming, are making excuses for not coming. By every excuse you make you are replying against God, you are entering into controversy with God, you are condemning God, who invites you to come. You cannot frame an excuse for not coming and accepting Christ that does not condemn God. Every excuse that any mortal makes for not accepting Christ, in its ultimate analysis, condemns God.”82
58 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 117, as cited by Michael Scott Horton, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), p. 60.
59 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit, vol. 4 (a message preached on August 1, 1858, at the Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens, cited by Warren Wiersbe, Classic Sermons on the Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1994), 114-115.
60 Spurgeon, as cited by Wiersbe, pp. 116-117.
61 We must also bear in mind that Satan has a hand in the unbelief of the lost, for he seeks to keep men from the gospel (Mark 4:3-4, 13-14), to blind men to the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:3-4), and also to corrupt and distort the gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4, 13-15).
62 John the Baptist recognized and addressed this error when he told the scribes and Pharisees, “. . . do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9).
63 Elsewhere, Paul makes a point of explaining that a true Israelite is a child of God by faith in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile (see Romans 4:16-17; Galatians 6:16). Incidentally, in Romans 4, Paul makes the point that Abraham was actually a Gentile (uncircumcised) when he became a believer (see 4:10-12).
64 Michael Scott Horton, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, p. 45.
65 A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God, p. 29.
66 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 117, as cited by Michael Scott Horton, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), p. 60.
67 D. James Kennedy, Truths That Transform (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1974), as cited by Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991), p. 43.
68 Michael Horton, p. 45.
69 Jonathan Edwards, taken from The Words of Jonathan Edwards (vol. 2, 1976), published by Banner of Truth Trust, as cited by Warren Wiersbe, Classic Sermons on the Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1994), p. 107.
70 A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God, p. 27.
71 Horton, p. 50.
72 Michael Horton, Putting The Amazing Back Into Grace, pp. 58-59.
73 Horton, p. 66.
74 Pink, p. 25.
75 Pink, p. 27.
76 Torrey, Wiersby, p. 45.
77 Torrey, p. 47.
78 Torrey, p. 48.
79 Torrey, p. 49.
80 Torrey, p. 57.
81 Torrey, p. 58.
82 Torrey, p. 58.
1. Learning to Love Leviticus
Leviticus used to be the first book that Jewish children studied in the synagogue. In the modern Church it tends to be the last part of the Bible anyone looks at seriously. … In practice then, though not in theory, Leviticus is treated as though it does not really belong to the canon of Scripture.1
A certain lady, on being asked if she had ever read the Bible right through, replied: “I have never read it through, though I have read much of it consecutively. Three times I have started to read it through, but each time I have broken down in Leviticus. I have enjoyed Genesis and Exodus, but Leviticus has seemed such dull reading that I have become discouraged and have given up.”2
I believe that these comments aptly describe the attitude of 20th century Christians toward the Book of Leviticus. I was attending a banquet the other night and was seated next to a Christian woman whose child attends the same school as our children. She commenced our conversation by politely asking what I did for a living. I responded that I was a preacher. As the conversation developed, I told this woman that I would soon be beginning to teach in the Book of Leviticus. That brought an immediate response. She told me that she had been involved in Bible Study Fellowship and that she had been assigned to study and to teach the Book of Leviticus. She went on to say that she went off by herself and sat down to read the book for two hours, after which time she was convinced she could come up with nothing whatever to say on this text.
A number of Christians would agree with her analysis. There is a kind of mental block which most Christians seem to have about certain books—especially Old Testament books, and particularly the Book of Leviticus. In this lesson I want to try to identify some of the reasons for our mental block about this book. I want to isolate some of the reasons why people think that Leviticus is an impossible book to read, to study, and most of all, to teach. I then will seek to show that these reasons are not valid. In the process, I hope to show why we should study the Book of Leviticus.
Characteristics of the Book of Leviticus
(1) Leviticus is largely a code book, a book of regulations. If any book of the Old Testament could be called a “book of the law” surely the Book of Leviticus is such. The book is filled with regulations.
(2) The Book of Leviticus is, to a great degree, a book of priestly regulations. In the Hebrew text the first word of the Book of Leviticus, translated “and He called,” serves as the title of the book. The English title, Leviticus, is borrowed from the Latin Vulgate, which, in turn, is derived from the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew text.3 Leviticus is not an inappropriate title for this, the third of the books of the Pentateuch written by Moses. It focuses on the levitical priesthood, who are prominently featured in this book.
(3) The Book of Leviticus contains many regulations pertaining to the laity, as well as to the priests. It should be pointed out, however, that the book is not written exclusively for the levitical priests, but has much instruction directed to the Israelite layman.4
(4) The Book of Leviticus is a book of regulations which is given by God through Moses, spoken to him from the tent of meeting. The very first words of the Book of Leviticus are: “Then the LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, ‘Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, …’” (Lev. 1:1-2a).
The regulations of Leviticus are a direct revelation from God to and through Moses.
(5) The Book of Leviticus is essentially a narrative form of literature. As Wenham has pointed out, “Leviticus is a book of laws set within a narrative framework …”5 One of the frequently found phrases in the Book of Leviticus is, “Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, …” It is thus to be understood that this book, as a piece of literature, is to be interpreted as a narrative. This means, as Wenham further emphasizes,6 that the legislation given in the book is that which is likely laid down in response to actual incidents which required a divine response. The laws and regulations of this book are the divine response to real life situations which came up in Israel’s wilderness sojourn.
(6) Leviticus is closely connected with the entire Pentateuch, and especially with Exodus and Numbers.7 In the original text the Book of Leviticus begins with a connective which is essentially equivalent here to “and,” indicating to the reader that the book simply follows on with the events and content of the Book of Exodus.8
The continuity of Leviticus with Exodus is immediately apparent, as can be illustrated by several common factors. In Exodus, God told Moses that He had chosen the Israelites to be a priestly nation (Exod. 19:6). In Leviticus there are many priestly regulations laid down. In the Book of Exodus the design for the tabernacle is given (Exod. 25-31, 35-40), while in Leviticus the “user’s manual” for the tabernacle is given. At the very conclusion of the Book of Exodus the presence of God descends upon the tabernacle. In Leviticus, the implications of the presence of God are spelled out.
(7) Essentially, Leviticus can be divided into two major divisions, separated by chapter 16, which deals with the annual day of atonement.9 Chapters 1-15 deal with what we might call “priestly holiness” for they give instructions about sacrifices and rituals which ceremonially relate to one’s holiness. Chapters 17-27 deal more with what we could call “practical holiness,” that is holiness which is worked out in one’s daily walk, rather than by one’s religious or ritualistic activities.
(8) Leviticus is quite frequently quoted or referred to, but in the Old Testament, perhaps no other book is more influenced by Leviticus than the prophecy of Ezekiel.10
(9) Leviticus makes a great deal of some distinctions. Much of the Book of Leviticus is devoted to distinguishing between what is “clean” and “unclean,” and that which is “holy” from that which is “profane.”11
(10) Leviticus does not press the distinction between ceremonial holiness and civilian holiness. While Leviticus does press the distinctions between clean and unclean, holy and profane, it does not press the distinction between the sacred and the secular.12 Holiness should be seen in the tabernacle and the sacrifices, and in the fields and workplace.
So What’s Your Problem With Leviticus?
Up to this point in time the Book of Leviticus has been the “liver and onions” book of the Bible to me. That is, I know that it must be good for me, but I just don’t seem to have a taste for the stuff. To others, the Book of Leviticus is something like camping … they tried it once and that was enough to last them a lifetime. Having briefly looked at the Book of Leviticus, let us get down to the issue of “taste” which must be settled before we will ever benefit from this portion of God’s word. The first thing we must seek to do is to identify the reasons why we tend to dislike and thus to avoid this book. Here are some of the ones which I have isolated.
(1) Leviticus is boring, it is not exciting enough. Dull after all the excitement of Genesis and Exodus. My children would probably say of the Book of Leviticus, “That’s boring.” Adults are more sophisticated about how they put it, but they mean the same thing. A young Jewish man, after hearing my analogy that Leviticus was like liver and onions, responded, “I like liver and onions better.”
My first response to this criticism of Leviticus is not to deny the charge. If I had to choose between reading the exciting narratives in Genesis or Exodus and the levitical codes I would quickly opt for reading in the books of Genesis and Exodus. Compared to other portions of the Bible Leviticus is dull.
My second response is that our culture has concluded that anything which is not entertaining is not worth listening to. The media has the task of grabbing a person’s attention, of taking them from whatever they are doing and setting their eyes and their minds on the printed page or the television screen. They do this in competition with other media, trying to do the same thing. And so we have come to the conclusion that we deserve to have all communication be entertaining and exciting.
I would like to suggest that in most (not all) cases the level of drama and hype is directly related to the irrelevance of what we are watching. You have to spice up the kinds of things we see in the media because they have little value, other than entertainment. On the other hand, the greatest and most significant communications of history have not been particularly entertaining. The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, or the Constitution of the United States are not written to entertain us. If we want to be entertained we turn to writings which begin, “once upon a time,” and end “happily after.” If we want to be informed about things vital to the present and to eternity, we most often must set aside our desire for entertainment.
How many of you go to the Richardson Public Library and check out the city code book for entertaining reading? No one does, but they do read the city codes very carefully if they plan to build a house in Richardson. The Texas Driver’s Manual is not great entertainment either, but anyone who wants to get their driver’s license had better study it well.
The Book of Leviticus is a book of regulations, regulations concerning how men are to relate to God and to their neighbors. Failure to observe these regulations can lead to death, and has eternal implications. Thus, the very form and content of the Book of Leviticus, which in the past may have caused us to avoid the book, is that which signals us to the vitally important communication from God which is contained in this book. No law book should be taken lightly, especially one which comes from God.
(2)The Book of Leviticus is too bloody. I was talking about Leviticus with a friend this week. When I started listing some of the reasons why people resist this book he interjected, “Blood on the ears.” It took me a moment to grasp what he was saying, but then I remembered that Moses took some of the blood of the “ram of ordination” and placed it on the right ears of Aaron and his sons, as well as on the big toes of their right feet (Lev. 8:22-24). This is a bloody book.
But then anyone who understands Old or New Testament faith understands that blood is required to be shed in order for sins to be forgiven and for men to be able to approach God. As the writer to the Hebrews put it, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). For the full and complete forgiveness of sins of both Old and New Testament believers, the blood of Christ was shed:
And not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled, sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Heb. 9:12-14).
Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:18-19).
(3) The Book of Leviticus is too difficult to understand. Anyone who has attempted to study the Book of Leviticus would have to agree that it is not an easy book to understand. The fact is, however, that all biblical revelation in not only hard to fathom, it is impossible, apart from the illumination of the Holy Spirit:
For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God … But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:11-12, 14-16).
Thus the Spirit of God enables us to comprehend the truths of God which are otherwise impossible to fathom or to accept.
The level of difficulty of understanding Leviticus (or any other Scripture, for that matter) is not without purpose. God never “casts His pearls before swine” (cf. Matt. 7:6). The richest truths of the Word of God seldom lie on the surface, for all to see. They have to be “mined,” as it were, showing our love for God and our diligence to know His will. As Proverbs puts it,
Make your ear attentive to wisdom, Incline your heart to understanding; For if you cry for discernment, Lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the LORD, And discover the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding (Prov. 2:2-6).
The wisdom of God is for those who diligently seek it. That is precisely what the psalmist did with regard to the law of God (Ps. 119). Let us determine to do likewise.
(4) The Book of Leviticus is not relevant to the New Testament Christian. There is no disputing the fact that Leviticus is “foreign” to the 20th century Christian. We are separated from the ancient Israelite culturally and geographically, not to mention the separation of centuries of time and of different dispensations in God’s dealing with men. How, then, can we find this ancient book relevant to our lives?
First, we must see that any objection which we raise concerning the relevancy of Leviticus is equally applicable to any other portion of the Old Testament, of which Leviticus is a part. In fact, if we are to object on the grounds of a distant place and time and a different culture, we would have to object to the New Testament books as irrelevant on the same grounds.
Second, we must approach Leviticus and all other Old Testament Scriptures in the light of the apostolic assertions of the relevance of their message to us:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable … (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Now these things [Israel’s experiences at the exodus and afterward in the wilderness] happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Cor. 10:11).
For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Rom. 15:4).
The Old Testament books are indeed relevant to us. And since Leviticus is included in the word “all” (All Scripture is inspired …), it must be profitable to us as well.
The difficulties which we might have in understanding, interpreting, and applying Old Testament is a matter of our hermeneutic, our method of interpreting Scripture.13 I hope that in our study of the Book of Leviticus we will be able to articulate and apply a hermeneutic which will enable us to get from the Old Testament all that Paul says we can.
There are those who would quickly set aside Leviticus on dispensational grounds, maintaining that this book contains “ceremonial law,” which is not relevant to the New Testament saint. Those who have come to this conclusion should carefully consider these words:
Christians customarily divide the OT law into three parts: the moral, e.g., the ten commandments, the civil, i.e., the legislation for OT society, and the ceremonial, i.e., the sacrificial and ritual laws. Many, despite Paul’s teaching that ‘all Scripture is inspired and profitable’ (2 Tim. 3:16), assert that only the moral law binds the Christian. The position faces three main difficulties. First, the NT does not seem to distinguish between the different types of law in this way. Second, it is difficult to draw the line between moral precepts and other law. … Third, much of the civil legislation is grounded on moral judgments, often expressed in the ten commandments.14
In one sense then the whole ceremonial law in Leviticus is obsolete for the Christian. We are interested in the sacrifice of Christ, not in animal sacrifice. But in another sense the levitical rituals are still of immense relevance. It was in terms of these sacrifices that Jesus himself and the early church understood his atoning death. Leviticus provided the theological models for their understanding. If we wish to walk in our Lord’s steps and think his thoughts after him, we must attempt to understand the sacrificial system of Leviticus. It was established by the same God who sent his Son to die for us; and in rediscovering the principles of Old Testament worship written there, we may learn something of the way we should approach a holy God.15
Also, I must say that our preoccupation with the relevance of any text of Scripture points out that Christians today are far too “relevancy oriented.” We are very pragmatic in our orientation. We are not very interested in truths that do not immediately and practically relate to our lives. This is similar to the thinking of the ancients, who thought that the sun must rotate around the earth, rather than the earth around the sun. Preachers are told to introduce their sermons by addressing some “felt need” and then to show how the truth of the text meets that need. The whole orientation thus is around self, and not God. Enough! I must protest.
We smile (sometimes) at the little child’s foolishness, who, when given a quarter, spends that quarter for immediate gratification. He goes out and buys a candy bar, rather than to deny himself an immediate pleasure in order to obtain something far better in the future. When we come to the Bible, we are far more interested in finding candy than we are in learning those truths and those principles which will put us in good standing in the future. Let us determine that we will study Leviticus (as well as other Scripture) for what God has for us in it, whether or not it immediately addresses and soothes some need. In a day when warmness and fuzziness is held at a premium I must tell you that God’s word often does not promise us a “warm fuzzy.” It is high time that we began to orient ourselves to God, and not insist that God orient Himself and His word to us.
The Book of Leviticus is relevant. If we are to understand its relevance to our lives then we must do so in the light of the use of this book by other inspired writers. How do the New Testament writers, who quote or refer to Leviticus at least 40 times in Scripture,16 see this book as relevant to New Testament saints? Let us briefly survey the way in which the New Testament writers use the teaching of Leviticus.
The Lord Jesus referred to the teachings of Leviticus on several occasions. In Matthew 5:43-48 our Lord based His teaching that we should be perfect, even as the Father is perfect, on the command of Leviticus 19:2, showing that the vengeance which characterizes men is not consistent with the teaching of Leviticus, which instructs us that we must “love our neighbor as ourselves” (Lev. 19:18).17
It is not just the teaching of our Lord which attests the relevance of the Book of Leviticus, but His life and sacrificial death. When Jesus first presented Himself to Israel as her Messiah, John the Baptist proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). In this one statement John summed up the fact that Jesus was the culmination and consummation of the Old Testament sacrificial system, which is one of the central themes of the Book of Leviticus. Thus, we learn that the key to understanding the life, ministry, and death of Christ is to be found in the Old Testament sacrificial system, which He fulfilled and brought to a close. The extensive treatment of the work of Christ and its relationship to the old covenant is further proof of the importance of our understanding of the Book of Leviticus.
The apostle Paul also referred to the teaching of the Book of Leviticus. In both Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14 Leviticus 19:18 is cited. Peter made even more use of Leviticus. In 1 Peter chapter one Peter based his argument for the Christian’s personal holiness on the commandment found in Leviticus (11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7). In the second chapter of this same epistle Peter taught that the church, the body of Christ, is a priestly nation. Thus the priestly regulations of Leviticus must have relevance to the priestly people, the church.
Not only do other biblical writers frequently cite passages from the Book of Leviticus, but the subject matter emphasized in Leviticus is that which is very relevant to Christians today. I believe that if you were to select a half dozen words which summarized the essence of the Christian faith you would find that most, if not all, were prominent themes in the Book of Leviticus.
In his commentary on the Book of Leviticus, Wenham has identified four key elements in the theology of the book.18 These are:
- The Presence of God
- The Role of Sacrifice
- The Sinai Covenant
Each of these themes is of great importance to the New Testament Christian. If time would permit, we could probe each area, showing its key role in New Testament Christianity.
To this point I have suggested that the New Testament testifies to the importance of Leviticus by (1) the citation of Leviticus by New Testament writers, and (2) by the fact that the theological themes of Leviticus are also primary focuses of New Testament theology. There is yet one more way in which the New Testament testifies to the importance of the Book of Leviticus: The New Testament writers frequently employ Old Testament sacrificial terminology to express their own point of view. If we are to understand what the New Testament writer meant for us to understand, we must understand his Old Testament figures of speech and terminology.
Let me illustrate what I mean by a couple examples from the New Testament. Our Lord, Paul and other writers use sacrificial terminology to describe New Testament acts of worship and obedience:
“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes unsalty, with what will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:49-50).
I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship (Rom. 12:1).
But I have received everything in full, and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God (Phil. 4:18).
We have an altar, from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Hence, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come. Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name. And do not neglect doing good and sharing; for with such sacrifices God is pleased (Heb. 13:10-16).
In the Mark 9 passage cited above, I believe that the key to the interpretation to this text is to be found in understanding the role salt played in some of the Old Testament sacrifices, such as found in Leviticus 2:13. The same can be said of the other portions of the New Testament where New Testament concepts are conveyed in Old Testament terminology. If we don’t understand the Old Testament terminology and concepts, we will not grasp the New Testament meaning.
We then have three compelling testimonies from the New Testament of the importance of a study of the Book of Leviticus. First, there is the citation of texts from Leviticus by our Lord and His apostles. Second, there is the recurrence of Old Testament theology in the New. And third, there is the dependence of the New Testament writers on Old Testament terminology.
Rightly, then, J. Sidlow Baxter concludes that this book has great relevance and value to Christians today:
Now, any fair study of Leviticus will quickly dispel these misgivings; for, as we shall see, it simply abounds in spiritual values; it has a living voice to our own day; its revelation of the Divine character is unique; and it is built together according to a clear plan. Its Mosaic authorship and Divine inspiration are attested by the Lord Jesus. It is referred to over forty times in the New Testament. All that follows it in the Scriptures is coloured by it; and, therefore, a clear knowledge of it contributes greatly towards comprehending the message of the Bible as a whole.20
I would like to ask you to do several things as we come to the conclusion of this message. First, I would like to ask you to agree with those who have studied the Book of Leviticus carefully and have concluded that it is a book which has great value for us. I want you to agree in particular to the fact that Leviticus is inspired of God, and that it is thus profitable to you for doctrine, for correction, for training in righteousness, so that you can be equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Second, I would like for you to act on this acknowledgment. I would like you to commit yourself to study this book. That you would read it consistently, consecutively, and in large portions at a time. I ask you to ponder (meditate) its teachings and to pray that God would give you insight and understanding as to its meaning and its application in your life. Finally, I ask you to do what you have committed to do, for the glory of God, in obedience to Him, and for your good.
1 Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), p. vii.
2 J. Sidlow Baxter, Explore the Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing house, 1960 [Six volumes in one]), I, p. 113.
3 “The opening word of the book, ‘wayyiqra,’ ‘and he called,’ was used as a title by the Jews, who also described Leviticus by such designations as ‘the law of the priests,’ ‘the book of the priests,’ and ‘the law of the offerings.’ These latter characterized the general contents of the book, recognizing it as a work intended principally for the Hebrew priesthood. The Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament entitled the book Leuitikon or Leueitikon, i.e., ‘relating to the Levites.’ The Vulgate, which was a revision of the Old Latin version, rendered the Greek heading by the phrase Liber Leviticus, from which the title in the English Bible was derived. Although the book is much more concerned with the duties of priests than of Levites, the English title is not entirely inappropriate, since the Hebrew priesthood was essentially levitical in character (cf. Heb. 7:11).” R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), p. 13.
4 Leviticus is a fairly appropriate title for the book for it deals largely with priestly matters, and the priests were drawn from the tribe of Levi. … It would be wrong, however, to describe Leviticus simply as a manual for priests. It is equally, if not more, concerned with the part the laity should play in worship. Many of the regulations explain what the layman should sacrifice. … Most of the laws apply to all Israel: only a few sections specifically concern the priests alone. …” Wenham, p. 3.
5 Ibid., p. 15.
6 “One striking feature of the Levitical laws is so obvious that it can be overlooked. At the beginning of nearly every chapter, and often several times within a chapter, it says, ‘The Lord spoke to Moses.’ In other words, all the laws are set within a narrative framework. … This historical setting accounts for some features of the book that seem out of place if the book were arranged in a purely logical fashion. For example, the instructions to the priests in ch. 10 are placed in their present position because they were given then, and the same motive may account for the law on blasphemy in ch. 24. … The laws were thus intended to meet immediate pressing problems… Leviticus is part of the Pentateuch. It is preceded by Exodus and followed by Numbers and therefore cannot be looked at in isolation. … Israel’s goal was Canaan, not the wilderness, and indeed until the disastrous episode of the spies (Num. 13-14) the Israelites expected to enter the promised land very shortly. Guidance as to the conduct befitting a holy people was therefore welcome at this stage of their development. Many of the laws in chs. 18-27 could only apply to a sedentary agricultural community, not to wandering nomads. … The actual quantity of narrative in Leviticus is very small. … Yet it is essential to recognize that all the laws are set within this historical frame if their arrangement is to be appreciated.” Ibid., pp. 5-6.
7 “Since Leviticus is basically a manual of priestly regulations and procedures, it is only natural that the purely historical element should be subordinated to ritual and legal considerations. Nevertheless, historical narratives are interwoven with sections of law and instructions concerning sacrificial procedures in such a way as to make it clear that Leviticus is closely connected historically with Exodus and Numbers.” Harrison, p. 13.
8 “On purely stylistic grounds alone Leviticus is linked with Exodus 20-40, and the association is demonstrated in the Hebrew text by means of the opening word of Leviticus, the very first consonant of which is a ‘waw consecutive,’ indicating a direct connection with what has just preceded it …” Ibid.
9 “The first fifteen chapters deal broadly with sacrificial principles and procedures relating to the removal of sin and the restoration of persons to fellowship with God. The last eleven chapters emphasize ethics, morality and holiness. The unifying theme of the book is the insistent emphasis upon God’s holiness, coupled with the demand that the Israelites shall exemplify this spiritual attribute in their own lives.” Harrison, p. 14.
10 “… the book of Ezekiel quotes or alludes to Leviticus many times (e.g., Lev. 10:10//Ezek. 22:26; Lev. 18:5//Ezek. 20:11; Lev. 26//Ezek. 34).” Wenham, p. 9.
11 J. Sidlow Baxter (Ibid., p. 113) has cited four basic reasons why Christians tend to avoid the Book of Leviticus. Briefly summarized these are: (1) The belief that it is impossible to master all the ritual and symbol so as to get much profit from the exercise. (2) Since the Leviticus is of another dispensation, there is no application or relevance to today. (3) Some of the teaching (either its severity or its seeming insignificance) seems inconsistent with the nature of God. (4) Genesis and Exodus are essentially historical narrative, so that the flow of the argument is quickly and easily discerned—not so with Leviticus.
12 “… thus the two series of laws in Leviticus are placed in unmistakable correspondence to one another.” C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, trans. by James Martin (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968 [reprint]), II, p. 264.
13 Wenham’s comments on his hermeneutical are helpful and accurate: “The approach favored in this commentary takes with equal seriousness both the plain original meaning of the text and its abiding theological value. The primary duty of every commentator is to elucidate what the author of the book meant and to recover what the earliest readers understood it to mean. But Christian commentators are bound to go further and say what the sacred text has to teach the church today, remembering Paul’s words that “whatever was written in former times was written for our learning” (Rom. 15:4). Wenham, p. vii. … “In this commentary the following position is assumed: the principles underlying the OT are valid and authoritative for the Christian, but the particular applications found in the OT may not be. The moral principles are the same today, but insofar as our situation often differs from the OT setting, the application of the principles in our society may well be different too.” Wenham, p. 35.
14 Ibid., p. 32.
15 Ibid., pp. 36-37. In pages 32-37 Wenham points out that there is a great deal of continuity, consistency, between the Old Testament and the New. I recommend that the reader consult these pages.
16 Baxter, I, p. 114.
17 Harrison writes, “The importance of levitical law in the mind of Christ can be seen from His remarks (Mt. 22:39) concerning the ‘golden rule’ (Lv. 19:18). In the synoptic gospels this aphorism is mentioned in Matthew 19:19; Mark 12:31; and Luke 10:27.” Harrison, p. 32.
18 Wenham, pp. 15-32.
19 Wright comments on holiness in Leviticus: “Holiness is the biblical ‘shorthand’ for the very essence of God. This makes the command of Leviticus 19:2 quite breath-taking. Your quality of life, it said to Israel, must reflect the very heart of God’s character. No less breath-taking, of course, was Jesus’ own echo of the verse to his disciples: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt. 5:48).” Christopher J. H. Wright, An Eye for An Eye: The Place of Old Testament Ethics Today (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 27.
20 Baxter, I, pp. 113-114. Of the Abiding Value of the book, Baxter further writes, “First, Leviticus is a revelation of the Divine character to ourselves today, as much as it was to Israel of old. God has not changed. Second, it is a symbolic exposition of the basic principles which underlie all dealing between God and men, just as truly today as in the past; for although the Levitical priesthood and sacrifices are now done away, the spiritual realities which they pictorially declare abide for all time. … Third, Leviticus provides a body of civil law for the theocracy; and although some of the details in it are now otiose, the principles of it are such as should guide legislation today. Religion and State, Capital and Labour, land-ownership and property rights, marriage and divorce—these and other matters, which are all to the fore today, are dealt with in Leviticus. … Fourth, Leviticus is a treasury of symbolic and typical teaching. Here are the greatest spiritual truths enshrined in vivid symbols. Here are the great facts of the New Covenant illustrated by great types in the Old Covenant. Supremely, it is in these ways an advance unveiling of Christ.” Baxter, I, pp. 114-115.
Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines
2. The Law of Burnt Offerings (Leviticus 1:1-17)
For many of us, the most we know of “burnt offerings” is from the jokes which are told by husbands pertaining to the “burnt offerings” of their wives. The ancient Israelite knew much more about burnt offerings, much thanks to the Book of Leviticus. The burnt offering is the first, and one of the most significant offerings.
The burnt offering, along with the others described in Leviticus 1-7, was offered on the bronze altar of burnt offering, the plans for which God gave Moses in the Book of Exodus:
And you shall make the altar of acacia wood, five cubits long and five cubits wide; the altar shall be square, and its height shall be three cubits. And you shall make its horns on its four corners; its horns shall be of one piece with it, and you shall overlay it with bronze. And you shall make its pails for removing its ashes, and its shovels and its basins and its forks and its fire pans; you shall make all its utensils of bronze. And you shall make for it a grating of network of bronze; and on the net you shall make four bronze rings at its four corners. And you shall put it beneath, under the ledge of the altar, that the net may reach halfway up the altar. And you shall make poles for the altar, poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with bronze. And its poles shall be inserted into the rings, so that the poles shall be on the two sides of the altar when it is carried. You shall make it hollow with planks; as it was shown to you in the mountain, so they shall make it (Exod. 27:1-8; cf. also 38:1-7).
The altar for the burnt offerings was thus made of acacia wood, overlaid with bronze, being nearly 8 feet square and about 4 and a half feet high.21 It was a very large altar indeed, but certainly not too large considering the large number of sacrifices and offerings which it was required to facilitate.
As one entered the courtyard of the tabernacle through the gate, the altar of burnt offering would be the first of the tabernacle furnishings to be encountered as one approached the tabernacle proper. To the left of the altar would be the ash heap, where the ashes from the altar were placed (cf. Lev. 1:16). Between the altar and the tabernacle doorway was the bronze laver (30:17-21; 38:8), where Aaron and his sons cleansed themselves. Then, there was the doorway to the tabernacle. Since the altar was located at the approach to the tabernacle, the sacrifices enabled men to draw near to God who dwelt in the tabernacle, and who spoke to Moses from within it (Lev. 1:1).
The purpose of this lesson is to study the first of the sacrifices regulated by chapters 1-7 of Leviticus. We will first make several observations about this sacrifice; then we will attempt to pursue the meaning of the burnt offering for the Israelite, and then we will seek to determine its meaning and application to the New Testament Christian.
As we seek to study the sacrifices of Leviticus, we will focus on two aspects of each. First, we will seek to see the continuity of one sacrifice to the rest. That is, we will seek to learn how a particular sacrifice is like the others. Secondly, we will seek to discern the unique contribution of each sacrifice. That is, we will attempt to determine how each sacrifice is distinct and unique from the others. I believe this two-fold approach will provide us with the key to understanding the sacrifices.
Observations Concerning the Burnt Offerings
The following observations will provide us with the raw material necessary for understanding the significance of the burnt offering of Leviticus chapter 1 (cf. the “law of the burnt offering” in Lev. 6:8-13):
(1) The burnt offering does not originate in Leviticus, but is found early in the Book of Genesis. It is incorrect to suppose that the burnt offering originates in Leviticus. Consulting a concordance will show that the first occurrence of the burnt offering is found in Genesis chapter 8. The first “burnt offering”22 was that offered by Noah after the flood waters had subsided, at which time he offered “burnt offerings” of all the clean23 animals (Gen. 8:20). God instructed Abraham to offer up Isaac as a “burnt offering” (Gen. 22:2ff.), and so the ram which God in Isaac’s place was offered by Abraham as a burnt offering (Gen. 22:13). When Moses told Pharaoh that Israel must take their cattle with them into the wilderness to worship their God, it was because they needed them to offer burnt offerings (Exod. 10:25-26). Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, offered a burnt offering to God in Exodus chapter 18 (v. 12). The Israelites offered up burnt offerings in conjunction with their meeting with God and receiving His covenant on Mt. Sinai (Exod. 20:24; 24:5, etc.). Unfortunately, when the Israelites worshipped the golden calf they offered up burnt offerings as a part of their false worship (Exod. 32:6).
It is my contention that it is these earlier references to the burnt offering in Genesis and Exodus which provided the Israelites with the key to understanding the meaning and significance of the burnt offering regulated in Leviticus chapter 1. We will demonstrate this fact a little later in this message.
(2) The burnt offering regulated in Leviticus chapter 1 was viewed primarily as a personal offering, done voluntarily by the individual Israelite.24 Elsewhere, the burnt offering is often a corporate offering, but as it is regulated in Leviticus 1 it is viewed as a personal, private offering. Thus, verse 2 reads, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When any man of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of animals from the herd or the flock’” (Lev. 1:2). From here on, the personal pronoun “he” is employed, referring to this individual Israelite, who comes with the burnt offering. It is also apparent that it was only the males who could make these offerings to the Lord. It seems that they represented their families (cp. Job 1:5).
(3) The burnt offering is one of the most common offerings, which is offered on a great variety of occasions, often in conjunction with another sacrifice or offering. The major purpose of Leviticus 1 is to instruct the Israelites how the burnt offering is to be offered, but they also needed to know when it should be offered. We find the answer to this question elsewhere in the Pentateuch. I will summarize the occasions on which the burnt offering was appropriate or required.
There were the regularly scheduled times for the burnt offering. Burnt offerings were to be made every day, in the morning and the evening (Exod 29:38-42; Num. 28:3, 6, cf. 2 Chron. 2:4, etc.). An additional burnt offering was to be offered up each Sabbath day (Num. 28:9-10). Also, at the beginning of each month (Num. 28:11), at the celebration of Passover on the 14th day of the 1st month (Num. 28:16), along with new grain offering at Feast of Weeks (Num. 28:27), at the feast of trumpets, on sacred day in the 7th month (Num. 29:1ff.), and for the celebration of the new moon (Num. 29:6).25
A burnt offering was often offered in conjunction with another sacrifice. Among these were the guilt offering (Lev. 5:7, 10, 17-18), the sin offering (cf. Lev. 5:7; 6:25; 9:2-3, 7; 12:6, 8), the votive or freewill offering (Lev. 22:18), the sheaf offering (Lev. 23:12), and the new grain offering (Lev. 23:15-22, esp. v. 18).
There were a number of occasions when a sacrifice was required for cleansing, of which the burnt offering was one of the sacrifices offered. The burnt offering was required in the cleansing of a woman’s uncleanness as a result of child-bearing (both a sin offering and a burnt offering were required, Lev. 12:6-8), of a leper (Lev. 14:19-20), of a man with a discharge (with a sin offering, Lev. 15:14-15), of a woman with an abnormal discharge (with a sin offering, Lev. 15:30), and of a Nazarite who was unintentionally defiled by contact with a dead body (Num. 6:11, 14). When the congregation unwittingly failed to observe one of God’s commands, and was thereby defiled, a burnt offering was required for the purification of the congregation (Num. 15:22-26). A burnt offering was required for the purification and consecration of Aaron (Lev. 16:3, 5, 24), as well as the Levites (Num. 8:12).
In addition to this, there were special times at which the burnt offering was appropriate. Then, there were times when this sacrifice could be offered voluntarily. The bottom line is that this sacrifice was the most common of all sacrifices in Israel:
The reason for describing the burnt offering first is that it was the commonest of all the sacrifices, performed every morning and evening, and more frequently on holy days. … This makes it plausible to suppose that the sacrifices in chs. 1-5 are arranged according to their various theological concepts, so that it is easier to remember their distinctive features. It may be that they were grouped in this way to help the priests learn their tasks.26
(4) The burnt offering was a whole “burnt offering,” which was totally consumed on the altar. Most of the sacrifices benefited the offerer and the priests, in addition to being pleasing to God. Sometimes, the offerer would eat some of the meat of the sacrificial animal, and most often the priest received a portion of it. Thus, when one offered a sacrifice to God, one’s mouth would water, knowing that he would be able to partake of the sacrifice. Not so in the case of the burnt offering, however. Neither the offerer nor the priest partook of any of the meat, for it was all burned in the fire. The hide of the animal was the priest’s only remuneration (cf. Lev. 7:8).
Incidentally, in verse 2 the Hebrew word used for an offering is “corban,” which is referred to by our Lord in Mark 7:11, providing us with an interesting and helpful insight into the evil practiced by the scribes and Pharisees when they called a possession “corban” to keep from having to provide for their parents in their old age.
(5) The regulations for the burnt offering (as well as the other offerings) are very important, and violations are taken very seriously. The way in which one offers any of the sacrifices described in chapters 1-7 must follow God’s regulations precisely. One need only read of the death of Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10 to have this point vividly underscored (cf. also Lev. 17:8-9).
(6) There are three types of animals to sacrifice in the burnt offering.27 The three types of animals, and the specific regulations pertaining to each, provides the structure for chapter 1: (1) Offerings from the herd (bull), vv. 3-9. (2) Offerings from the flock (a sheep or a goat), vv. 10-13. (3) Offerings of birds (turtledoves or pigeons), vv. 14-17. It would seem that the principal reason for providing several sacrificial animals is that the poor could not afford to sacrifice a bull (cf. 14:21-22, 31, where being poor is given as basis for reduction in sacrifice demanded by God).
(7) The animal to be offered in the burnt offering was always to be of the highest quality. A bull, a sheep, or a goat, were all livestock of considerable value.28 With the exception of the birds which could be offered for a burnt offering, the animal must be a male of the flock (v. 10) or the herd (v. 3).29 The animal was to be young, not a old, unproductive, useless creature, fit only for soup or for the proverbial “glue factory.” In fact, it is my impression that the animals were just at the point where they would begin to “pay for their keep.” It truly would be a sacrifice to offer up an animal which one had raised, which was about to be productive, and was thus valuable.
(8) There is an alternation between the activity of the priest and the offerer. As you read the regulations in Leviticus 1 pertaining to the burnt offering you notice an intermingling of involvement between the offerer and the priest(s). While the offering of the birds is somewhat different (it is not nearly so complicated a process), the offerer generally puts the animal to death and cuts it up, while the priest handles the sprinkling of its blood and its burning on the altar of sacrifice. The offerer is much more involved in the process of sacrifice than we might think.30 Sacrifice was, for the offerer, a very personal experience. This was intended, I believe, to make an impression on the Israelite who was making his sacrifice.
(9) The purpose of the burnt offering was to make atonement for the sin of the offerer and thus to gain God’s acceptance. The offerer laid his hands upon the animal, identifying with it.31 More specifically, he identified his sins with the animal. Thus, when the animal was slain (by the hand of the offerer) it died for the sins of the offerer. It is not so much for the offerer’s specific sins (which are dealt with by other sacrifices), but rather for the offerer’s general state of sinfulness.32
The burnt offering was required by, and served to remind the offerer of, his depravity. The burnt offering was thus not so much to gain forgiveness for a particular sin, but to make atonement for the offerer’s sinfulness. It was not just a certain sin which required men to remain separated from God, but the individual’s sinful state. The burnt offering seems to provide a divine solution for man’s fallen condition.
Burnt Offerings and the Ancient Israelite
When we come to the point of trying to discern the meaning of the burnt offering (or any other offering, for that matter) to the Israelites of Moses’ day, we tend to forget a very important fact: they understood this sacrifice in the light of what they already knew about it, not in terms of its future fulfillment. We often impose our viewpoint and interpretation on the Israelites of old by interpreting the meaning of an Old Testament text in the light of the coming of Christ. We must remember, however, that Christ’s coming, life, death, and resurrection is a past event for us, but a future event for the Israelites. They (like Christians today) had to interpret God’s Word in the light of what God had already said and done.
Thus, the key to understanding the meaning of the burnt offering for the ancient Israelite was what had already been revealed about it before the regulations of Leviticus. Leviticus 1 informed the Israelite how the burnt offering was to be offered, not what it meant. I believe that the two major interpretive keys to the meaning of the burnt offering are to be found in the “burnt offerings” of Noah in Genesis 8 and of Abraham in Genesis 22.
In Genesis chapter 8, after the flood has destroyed all life on earth (except for what was in the ark), and after the water has subsided, we read:
Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the LORD smelled the soothing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done. While the earth remains, Seedtime and harvest, And cold and heat, And summer and winter, And day and night Shall not cease” (Gen. 8:20-22).
The relationship between this text and that of Leviticus can be seen by several lines of correspondence. First, the term “burnt offering” found in Genesis 8:20 is the same as that of Leviticus 1. Second, “clean” animals and birds are offered by Noah (Gen. 8:20). It is Leviticus which defines the difference between what is clean and what is not. Third, the offering is said to be a “soothing aroma” to God (Gen. 8:21), which is an expression similar to that found frequently in Leviticus, and more specifically in Leviticus chapter 1 (vv. 9, 13, 17).
The sacrifice which Noah offered was the basis for the covenantal promise of God that He would never again destroy every living thing by a flood again (Gen. 8:21). This promise was not due to the fact that all sin had been destroyed from the face of the earth. The fact of man’s depravity (as will soon be manifested in Noah and his family) is still present, for God can still say, “the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21), a statement very similar to that of Exodus 32:9, where God told Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people.”
The basis for God’s promise to Noah is not the goodness of man, for man’s depravity is specifically stated. This basis for God’s covenant promise is the result of the burnt offering offered up by Noah. Thus, the Israelites saw that the burnt offering was a means of avoiding God’s wrath and of obtaining God’s favor. God’s blessing was the result of a burnt offering, not of man’s good deeds.
The second interpretive key is found in the burnt offering of Abraham in Genesis 22. God summoned Abraham with this command: “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen. 22:2).
We know from the account given by Moses that Abraham did as God commanded him. We know from the New Testament accounts that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son because he believed that God would raise him from the dead (cf. Rom. 4:19-21; Heb. 11:19). In God’s grace, He stopped Abraham from slaying his son, and provided a ram in his place (Gen. 22:13).
In what way did this account of the offering up of Isaac as a burnt offering instruct the Israelites about the meaning of the burnt offering? I believe that it taught them several important lessons. First, they could have seen that the promise of God’s blessing to all the earth, the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen. 12:1-3), involved the death and resurrection of Abraham’s offspring. Secondly, the Israelites saw that in the “burnt offering” the sacrificial animal died in place of the man. Isaac didn’t die because God provided an animal to take his place. So when the Israelite place his hand on the head of the sacrificial animal, he should have known that this animal was dying in his place, just as the ram died in the place of Isaac. He should also have seen that something must take place in the future, so that the death of Isaac, which was prevented by the sacrifice of the ram, could be carried out in some greater way.
All of this has become clear to the New Testament saint, but it was obscure to the ancient Israelite, who knew that God was at work in some mysterious and, as yet, unknown way. Until the time when this purpose was made known, the Israelite offered up his burnt offering, so that God’s wrath could be avoided, and so that God’s blessings could be received.
The Burnt Offering and the New Testament Saint
Regardless of what the ancient Israelite understood of the symbolism of the burnt offering in terms of its future fulfillment in Christ, Christ was the ultimate fulfillment, the antitype of the burnt offering. John the Baptist indicated this at the very outset of our Lord’s ministry, when he greeted Him with the words, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).33
We must agree with the theology of the Book of Hebrews (in particular) and of the New Testament (in general) that now that Christ has come as the Lamb of God and died “once for all” there is no longer any need for the burnt offering, the type of which our Lord is the ultimate and final antitype.
It might seem that if the burnt offering is no longer necessary, we must conclude that the burnt offering is no longer relevant, since the future meaning of that sacrifice has been realized in Christ. There is a sense in which this conclusion is absolutely correct. There is another sense in which this conclusion can be carried too far. Let me press on to show the importance and the applicability of the burnt offering to New Testament saints today.
The burnt offering (and the others, too) was symbolic in the sense that it represented and portrayed, in advance, the ultimate burnt offering, Jesus Christ. The burnt offering also symbolized the Old Testament saint’s faith in God’s provision for his sins, and for his access to God. The burnt offering symbolized the Old Testament saint’s faith in God, and his intention to love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love his neighbor as himself.
The Israelite’s worship often deteriorated to mere ritualism when the sacrifices were offered, but then the faith and obedience which they symbolized did not follow. When this happened, the prophets sternly rebuked the Israelites for their hypocrisy:
With what shall I come to the LORD And bow myself before the God on high? Shall I come to Him with burnt offerings, With yearling calves? Does the LORD take delight in thousands of rams, In ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8).
It is my contention that the faith and obedience of the Israelite, which the sacrifice of the burnt offering symbolized, and which was required by God of the Israelites, is the same faith and obedience which the death of Christ is to produce in all who profess Him as Savior, and which God requires of us. These acts of faith and obedience are described by the New Testament writers by the use of the same sacrificial terminology as is employed in the Old Testament.
Christian service, in church and in the community, is compared to sacrifice: “Through him let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God. … Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:15-16; cf. Phil. 4:18; 1 Pet. 2:5). In that the only burnt offering that can atone for sin has been made by Christ, Christians no longer have to bring their lambs to the altar to receive forgiveness of sins. But bringing a sacrifice involved praising God for his grace and declaring one’s intention to love God and keep his commandments. Now that animal sacrifice is obsolete, praise and good works by themselves constitute the proper sacrifices expected of a Christian.34
Thus far, we have seen that the burnt offering and the other Old Testament sacrifices apply in the fulfillment of Christ as the “once for all” sacrifice for sinners, and in the faith and obedience of the offerer which the sacrifices symbolized. There is yet another way in which the sacrifices apply to us. The same principles which the sacrifices were intended to teach the Israelite and those which these sacrifices teach us, these principles still apply today, as much as in the days of the Israelite. Let me identify a few of these principles and suggest some of their practical implications to New Testament saints. As our study of Leviticus continues, we shall pursue these principles in greater detail.
(1) The principle of man’s depravity The burnt offering was not an offering for a specific sin, but was associated with other offerings, and with various occasions, from mourning and repentance, to celebration and joy. The purpose of this sacrifice, I believe, was to be a reminder to the Israelites of man’s depravity. As God Himself put it in Genesis 8:21, “the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” In any instance when an Israelite wanted to approach God, to worship Him, to be accepted by Him, he had to come with a burnt offering, thus acknowledging and making provision for his sinfulness. We ought not forget our own depravity.
The principle applies equally to Christians today. While it is true that Christ died for our sins, once for all, it is also still true that we will not be freed from sin’s presence until we are in the presence of God, with transformed bodies. Our present condition is the reason why we must die, and to enter into heaven in a different form (cf. 1 Cor. 15). Because we are still corrupted by sin, we need to suspect and scrutinize our every motive and action. We need to realize that whether we are witnessing, preaching, or serving, our actions can appear to be pious, but can be prompted by the basest motives. We need to realize that we are in need of the present intercession and mediation of Christ, that we need Him every hour, yes every moment. The only reason why we can approach God is due to the sacrificial work of Christ.
(2) The principle of particularity. If the Israelite learned anything from the meticulous rules and regulations which God laid down for the burnt offering and all of the rest, it was that He is very particular about the way men approach Him. The rebellious nature of fallen man inclines him to want to approach God his own way. The song, “I did it my way,” illustrates this tendency. God did not allow men to approach Him their own way, but rather only in accordance with the means He Himself established. Men could only approach God by means of the tabernacle, the priesthood, and the sacrifices. Today, men can only come to God God’s way, through the person and work of Jesus Christ, who, as the sacrificial lamb, died for our sins, making a way of approach to God. Our Lord conveyed the exclusiveness of His death as the way to God when He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6).
If you wish to approach God, to be assured of the forgiveness of your sins, and to dwell in His presence forever, my friend, you can do so only through faith in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to earth and died in your place. No other way is acceptable with God. In no other way can you be found acceptable in Him.
(3) The principle of acceptance with God. Closely related to this is the principle of acceptance with God. There is a great deal of emphasis these days on self-acceptance, or self-esteem, most of which is wrongly oriented. Contemporary self-esteem looks inward for acceptance, while the Bible tells us that the ultimate acceptance we must seek is God’s. People today want to “feel good about themselves” by looking for the good which is in them, while God’s word tells us that we are not good, in and of ourselves, but must look for God’s favor which is occasioned by something outside ourselves, ultimately in something which we put to death. Today we are told, even from the pulpit, that we must first feel good about ourselves, we must first love ourselves, and then we will be able to love God. The Bible tells us that we cannot, that we should not, accept ourselves until God has accepted us.
The bottom line is that the Bible portrays God’s acceptance as the highest good of all, and that making great sacrifice is worth the price to attain God’s favor. Let us see God’s approval as our highest good, and let us forsake all, including self-seeking and self-love to attain it. It is in our death, in Christ, that God is well pleased. It is in giving up our life that we gain life. And as Christians, no motive should be stronger than that of pleasing God, of hearing Him say to us in that day, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
(4) The principle of atonement through the shedding of blood. The sinful state of man is dealt with by the shedding of innocent blood, the blood of a sacrificial victim. The burnt offering communicates and illustrates this principle of atonement.
(5) The principle of identification. The one who was to benefit from the death of the sacrificial victim had to identify with that animal. It was, first of all, his animal, one that he had either raised or obtained at a price. Then the offerer placed his hand upon the victim, symbolically identifying himself with the victim, which he killed in his place. Apart from identifying with the sacrificial animal in this way, the sacrifice had no benefit for the individual Israelite.
We, too, are redeemed, and atonement is made, when we identify ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism is the rite which God has established, whereby men identify personally with the work of Christ. Baptism does not, in and of itself, save men, but identification with Christ (which is symbolized and expressed by baptism) is the instrumentality God has ordained so that we may be delivered from the judgment we deserve. Those who have failed to be baptized may either fail in their understanding of the importance and urgency of this public act of identification, or they may not have personally identified with Christ by faith.
(6) The principle of sacrifice. One of the unique contributions of the whole burnt offering is that it illustrates sacrifice in its purest form. A very valuable animal is given up wholly to God. Neither the offerer nor the priest gains much from the offering, other than the benefit of being found acceptable to God, which, in the final analysis, is the ultimate benefit.
This kind of sacrifice is seldom practiced, and even when it is we may wonder at the wisdom of such waste. The widow who gave her last two mites might be criticized today for her lack of prudence in failing to plan and prepare for the future. The woman who poured out her expensive perfume, anointing the feet of the Lord, was accused of wastefulness. And so we tend to give our worn out old things to God, while we keep what is new and best for ourselves. We know little of giving our best to God, with no hope of anything beyond His approval.
But this kind of sacrifice is what God calls for from those who would be true disciples. Disciples are those who give up all to follow Christ. They are to count the cost of discipleship, and then to gladly pay it. When we give ourselves to God, as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1-2), we are to do so totally, without reserve, so as to be pleasing to Him. May God enable us to practice this kind of sacrifice in our own lives.
21 “Outside the tent was found the large altar for burnt offerings, 7 ft. 6 inches (2.2 meters) square and 4 ft. 6 inches (1.3 meters) high, which is described in Exod. 27:1-8.” Gordon J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979), pp. 52-53.
22 When I refer to the term “burnt offering” here I refer specifically to that offering which is designated by the same Hebrew term as is found in Leviticus chapter one.
23 It is noteworthy that in this first account of a “burnt offering” the term “clean” appears, a term which is greatly clarified in Leviticus. Also, the sacrifice of the “burnt offering” offered by Noah was said to produce a “soothing aroma” to the Lord (Gen. 8:21), an expression frequently employed (at least in very similar terms) in Leviticus (e.g. 1:9, 17). This suggests that many of the practices which are regulated in Leviticus are not initiated here, but have their origin much earlier in the history of God’s dealings with men.
24 “The following laws deal with offerings made by private persons. The public national sacrifices offered each day and at the festivals are listed in Num. 28-29. But here it is a question of a personal act of devotion or atonement.” Wenham, p. 50.
25 Special times of offering burnt offerings are summarized in 2 Chronicles 8:13: “And did so according to the daily rule, offering them up according to the commandment of Moses, for the sabbaths, the new moons, and the three annual feasts—the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Booths” (cf. also 2 Chron. 31:3).
26 Wenham, p. 52.
27 Leviticus 1:2 makes it clear that only domesticated animals may be offered, and not wild game, which is (too) easily obtained.
28 “Furthermore, only perfect animals were acceptable in worship (Lev. 1:3, 10; 22:18ff.). Only the best is good enough for God. The prophet Malachi later told those who offered second-rate animals that they were despising the Lord’s name and polluting his table … Meat was a rare luxury in OT times for all but the very rich (cf. Nathan’s parable, 2 Sam. 12:1-6). Yet even we might blanch if we saw a whole lamb or bull go up in smoke as a burnt offering. How much greater pangs must a poor Israelite have felt.” Wenham, p. 51.
29 Wenham agrees that the male species is more highly valued: “Male animals were also regarded as more valuable than females. For example, in the case of purification offerings a ruler had to bring a he-goat, but an ordinary person was expected to offer only a she-goat (4:22-31). Except for the burnt offering and reparation offerings, animals of either sex could be offered: the limitation to male animals shows the high status of these two sacrifices.” Ibid., p. 55.
Harrison, however, disagrees: “Here and in 5:18 alone a male animal is specified for sacrifice. The choice of a male may reflect the dominance of that sex in other than matriarchal societies, but it may well have embraced a more pragmatic purpose also. Where a choice was involved, male animals were more expendable than females in a society in which livestock was equivalent to both capital and income. Fewer males than females were necessary for the survival of the herds and flocks, since the male was utilized only periodically for purposes of breeding. By contrast, the female functioned as a continual provider of milk and its by-products in addition to producing new livestock from time to time.” R. K. Harrison, Leviticus: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1980), pp. 43-44.
I find Harrison’s reasoning hard to accept. The rarer animal (the male, by his admission) is the more expensive. Due to his role in the reproduction process, the male could reproduce many offspring, while the female would produce (normally) but one offspring. To give up a female was some loss; to give up the male, great loss. In either case, however, since the animals sacrificed were young, neither had yet produced for its owner. The owner was to sacrifice the animal just at that point in time when the animal was gaining value, after a period of what we might call “negative cash flow.” This really was a sacrifice, then.
30 “The ancient worshipper did not just listen to the minister and sing a few hymns. He was actively involved in the worship. He had to choose an unbelmished animal from his own flock, bring it to the sanctuary, kill it and dismember it with his own hands, then watch it go up in smoke before his very eyes. He was convicted that something very significant was achieved through these acts and knew that his relationship with God was profoundly affected by this sacrifice.” Wenham, p. 55.
31 Wenham stresses this when he writes, “Lay is perhaps a rather weak translation of the Hebrew (samak); ‘press’ might be preferable (cf. Isa. 59:16; Ezek. 24:2; 30:6; Amos 5:19). The worshipper was not just to touch the animal; he was to lean on it.” Wenham, p. 61.
32 Wenham seems to agree when he writes, “… the burnt offering makes atonement for sin in a more general sense.” Ibid., p. 57.
33 The words of John the Baptist are especially relevant, since he did not say, “who takes away the sins (plural) of the world,” but rather, “who takes away the sin of the world.” Christ as the Lamb of God, as the antitype of the burnt offering, deals with the depravity of man, with man’s sinfulness in general, as well as his sinfulness in terms of specific sins.
34 Wenham, pp. 64-65.